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Firefighters' lesson all too real

They were studying responses to terrorism when the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 23, 2001

PINELLAS PARK -- Four city fire officials attended a conference on terrorism two weeks ago in Nevada when the lessons became too real: During a class Sept. 11, they learned of attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

The students -- firefighters from around the country -- were sent back to their rooms as organizers from the U.S. Department of Justice's Office for Domestic Preparedness Support debated the wisdom of evacuating them.

The firefighters stayed. Their lessons took on a heightened importance and the unfolding events evoked understandable emotions.

As the towers collapsed, "we knew a lot of firefighters died," Deputy Fire Chief Steve McCarthy recalled. He broke down in tears. "It's a brotherhood, so you're part of it."

Training Chief Sandy Sullivan said: 'I don't think there was a dry eye in the classroom."

The terrorism training, about 70 miles outside Las Vegas, is the latest continuing education for the Pinellas Park group.

McCarthy, Sullivan, Lt. Rick Ferguson and firefighter Neal Hunt are members of the Pinellas County hazardous materials response team. They will be the first called should the county be subject to a terrorist attack.

The county has received about $900,000 in grants for equipment and training to respond to terrorist attacks. Much of the classroom work will take place in three phases. The first was bioterrorism. The second was about atomic terrorism. The third, to be later this year, will be about bombs.

About 20 of Pinellas Park's firefighters have been through at least some of the training.

Sullivan and the others were studying atomic terrorism when the Trade Center was attacked. They visited the sites of nuclear blasts. They listened to a man who had worked at Chernobyl talk about his experiences with radiation sickness. They heard about atomic bombs that fit in suitcases.

"I get butterflies sometimes when I think what can happen," Sullivan said.

It was not all serious business. At one point, Sullivan asked the instructor, "Where is Area 51?"

He was referring to the "secret" base that many think houses a crashed UFO and space aliens.

"Area 51 does not exist," the instructor said, pointing toward a mountain. "But if it did, it would be over there."

The schooling lasted only four days, but the firefighters spent an extra day in Las Vegas because planes were grounded. All advertising had been removed from the electronic billboards, they said, so flags and "God Bless America" could be displayed.

"It looked like the Fourth of July," McCarthy said.

When they were able to leave, they spent two or three hours waiting for the plane. They were loaded down with books about terrorism such as Weapons of Mass Destruction, so they figured on being stopped and questioned.

"Not only did they not say anything to us, they didn't ask us for identification," Sullivan said. "Security. You have to kind of question what was going on."

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