Officials Practice Disaster for Hockey Venue in North Dakota

Disaster scenario involves more than two-dozen agencies, offers real-life insights into emergency response plan


Grand Forks, N.D.-area authorities worked through a disaster scenario Wednesday that struck close to home: a terrorist attack during the upcoming World Juniors Hockey Championship.

The scenario, part of a tabletop exercise that involved more than two dozen agencies, described a car bombing that caused hundreds of casualties at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

It's purely fictional - there is no intelligence suggesting any sort of attack, creators of the scenario said - but it gave local authorities a chance to test their response.

Exercise participants were asked how they would respond and what obstacles they foresaw.

One detective predicted that communications would be tough. Different agencies use different frequencies and sometimes have to rely on the 911 dispatch center to talk to each other. But in an emergency, the center would be swamped with cell phone calls from victims and passersby.

At the medical table, Altru officials said their main concern was to shut down the hospital in preparation for mass casualties.

Then, exercise moderators threw a wrench into the works: They announced that an anonymous caller to area media outlets claimed to have released into the Ralph an agricultural chemical that functions as a nerve agent.

Now, authorities had to deal with a potential chemical attack on top of bomb damage.

At the same time, the police were torn between keeping people out of the site, which could contain unexploded bombs, and letting firefighters in to rescue the buried.

By the end of the exercise, nearly 200 had died and nearly 100 were still hospitalized. Authorities were left to ponder how to recover. Should emergency responders be monitored for health problems? What happens to bodies that are unclaimed? Do victims' belongings go to next of kin, or should they be kept for evidence?

One of the moderators said participants gained from just being in the exercise because they bring different people together who might not otherwise talk on a day-to-day basis.

"The most important things that come out of these meetings is we have them," he said.