Boom, Boom, You're Dead

"ANYONE WHO NEEDS bruises or contusions, come to Table E. Bruises or contusions, over here, please." It's 0500 hours, Saturday. Outside, the moon slumps behind a massive cloud itself the color of a fresh bruise. Inside the hangar at the U.S. Air Force Reserve Headquarters at Fort Snelling, a gray airplane dwarfs the crowd of civilians and military reserves who snake into the moulage area. The civilians are volunteers, mostly teenagers: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Junior Police. Together we add up to some 700 victims of a simulated terrorist attack complicated by radiation fallout. Ground Zero: Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building. Within three hours, a third of us will be dead or dying.

At the registration desk, we each receive three cards. The white one lists our blood pressure, heart rate, and relative health after the blast. The yellow one details the damage: "Internal abdominal injuries," mine reads. "Pain over abdomen, tender to touch. Refuses to get up because of pain." The blue one tells trained volunteers at the moulage tables what make-up, latex, and fixatives to apply in order to simulate blood, pus, viscera, and bone. My instructions include three steps: 1) contusion anywhere on abdomen; 2) abrasion overlapping contusion; 3) mild central cyanosis. At the bottom is printed the warning: "Be sure to see the simulation coach."

My contusions are two purple grease-paint stains below my rib cage. The abrasions are red streaks applied with a wire sponge. A flirty high-school girl afflicts me with the cyanosis, dabbing at my eyes and mouth with whitish paint to put me in a simulated state of shock. There's plenty of time then to watch technicians inject blood under latex burn blisters and attach chicken bone appliques to appendages. One reservist shows me two film canisters taped shut and filled with vomitus. He has been instructed to spit them as hard as he can to simulate projectile vomiting when the Emergency Response Team arrives.

More hurry up and wait as we're ushered into a fleet of idling MTC buses, cheerfully bantering in spite of our gaping wounds, third-degree burns, and radiation sickness. The sun crests full in our faces as we pull out of the parking lot, seven buses snaking in formation through Fort Snelling. Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City. World Trade Center, New York. And soon enough, Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building, St. Paul. At 0800, the explosion detonates. We don't hear it over the groan of the diesel engines.

"The simulated bombing," reads a sheet in the press packet, "is being staged to prepare all units of government and other agencies to deal with massive fatalities and injuries." Indeed, over 50 agencies, including the Secret Service, the FBI, ATF, BCA, local police and fire departments, and the Metropolitan 911 board fan out across the bomb scene in marked and unmarked vehicles. The exercise is officially titled RADEX North, for Radiological Exercise North, an Integrated Response Disaster Situation. The Bloomington Convention and Visitors Bureau provides lodging and communications.

While preparedness is the overt mission, there's a certain ritual about the scene. We're casting a protective spell over ourselves, pretending we can be different than the unlucky ones in Israel, and Zaire, and Rwanda. On the cold asphalt of the vast federal parking lot, I will die so you may live in freedom.

We surge off the bus past other volunteers holding spray bottles. "Blood?" they inquire, spritzing wounds to freshen up appearances. "I'm internal only," I say, following the group toward the disaster simulation site where I lie down and play critical. Two shell-shocked victims are assigned to drag me from the rubble. They spread me moaning on the ground. I begin to shiver. A hysterical crowd presses in. "I know CPR," someone yells. "He's dying! Somebody help!" A kid with a grotesque puncture wound on his right cheek hovers inches from my face. "My stomach hurts," I groan. He grins broadly. "Nobody cares," he whispers.

Finally, I'm in an ambulance, in a scene memorized from a hundred movies: I.V. tubes swinging in time with the truck, a strip of fluorescent lights overhead, masked men peering down at me. A paramedic studies the vital signs taped to my chest. He shakes his head, pulls off his radiation mask. "You're dead," he says. "We never should have taken you from the scene. You would have died out there."

At the hospital, a dozen retired victims loll around over juice and cookies. A girl picks at her massive leg wound, peeling off chunks of skin and muscle and rolling them between her fingers. "I just hope we never have to do this for real," a hospital official says, shaking hands with a RADEX North coordinator. "Believe me," the coordinator says, shifting his clipboard back to his right hand, "you will."

 
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