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PATH emergency drill, done as advertised

(The following story by Christine Hauser appeared on the New York Times website on May 20, 2009.)

NEW YORK — Emergency lights flashed in the early-morning chill, streets were sealed off, and within minutes, firefighters and police officers had raced through the smoky PATH tunnel beneath the Hudson River to reach the darkened train. They quickly began evacuating the 150 passengers, many with red smears on their faces and bodies. Some were put in steel carts and wheeled back to the station at the World Trade Center.

And the officials running the operation on Sunday morning made sure that nobody thought it was the real thing.

Operation Safe PATH 2009, an exercise involving about 800 emergency workers from multiple agencies, coordinated a response to a simulated explosion aboard a PATH train.

The drill emphasized the need for the agencies to work side by side on both first aid and intelligence gathering, said Commissioner Joseph F. Bruno of the city’s Office of Emergency Management.

Officials were aware of the possible sensitivity of residents to the sight of flashing red lights and squadrons of emergency workers at ground zero. That concern was amplified three weeks ago, after office workers rushed into the streets when they saw one of the planes used as Air Force One flying over Lower Manhattan, Staten Island and Jersey City, accompanied by fighter jets, in what turned out to be a photo session.

Mr. Bruno said that scare highlighted the need for advance notice of Sunday’s drill. Announcements were sent to the news media, community boards, and to those who have signed up to receive alerts from the city’s emergency-notification system.

“That particular incident pointed out the need for people to know as much as possible,” Mr. Bruno said. “We would not want folks to wake up and see all this equipment and wonder.”

Police officers were stationed behind sawhorses, telling pedestrians there was a drill and diverting them away.

With PATH service shut down for much of the morning, a train was positioned about 1,200 feet into the tunnel on a westbound track. Smoke machines were activated and about 150 volunteers were made up to look bloodied and injured: a glass shard jutted from a forehead; a forearm was scraped raw. They then took seats on the train, with other seats occupied by mannequins.

The “explosions” occurred about 8 a.m.

The security of the PATH trains and tunnels has long been a concern. There are about 250,000 passenger trips through the PATH system each weekday, with 50,000 trips through the station at ground zero alone.

In 2006, a preliminary draft of an analysis done for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and provided to The New York Times, found that the four tubes of the rail system were structurally fragile and that a bomb explosion could flood parts of the system within hours.

Chris Gilbride, a spokesman for the Office of Emergency Management, would not comment on the 2006 report, but said the “exercise was designed so the explosion did not breach the tunnel.”

Most of the drill’s participants were able to walk out to the street, but 20 victims were considered “critically injured” and had to be wheeled out on the kind of aluminum rail carts that were used in London after a 2005 bombing there. The carts had never been used in New York, said Chief Joseph Pfeifer, of the Fire Department’s counterterrorism unit.

Once outside, the volunteers were questioned by detectives for intelligence gathering.

“If we are going to make mistakes, we want to make them here,” said Edward Skyler, the deputy mayor for operations.

When the two-hour exercise ended about 10 a.m., pedestrians mingled with the volunteers and officers in full gear. One elderly couple snapped photographs. A girl passed a bloodied volunteer on West Broadway.

“I was like, ‘What was going on?’ People were coming out with fake bruises,” said Iman Hayes, 12. “It was shocking and surprising.”

Dr. Anthony Lyon, a 35-year-old physician who lives nearby, sauntered through the throng of firefighters, with his son Jonah on his shoulders. He said he was not surprised by the sight of Sunday’s drill, for one simple reason: “Because of where we are.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

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