Agency drills focus on a mock bus attack

By Chelle Delaney

On Wednesday, a 46-passenger bus exploded in Coronado Park on Camino del Coronado.

The explosion was caused by a 6-pound package of explosives that could have easily fit into a backpack and detonated if a homicide bomber wanted to blow himself or herself and the bus to bits.

The response was quick. Tucumcari Police and Fire departments were on the scene. Other city and state agencies arrived, too, including the Hazardous Materials Team from Clovis, and even teams from Texas.

Although it was just a exercise, a drill to keep agencies prepared, the next day, it was eerily coincidental that London officials were arresting suspected airplane terrorists.
And, just as any attacks on future flights out of London’s Heathrow Airport to the United States were weeks in the planning, so was this one.

“Having this bus explosion exercise like this is appropriate. The United States has raised its security alert to a code red, and we’re assuring the public that we’re able to respond rapidly to any threat we might have,” said Tucumcari Police Chief Larry Ham.

Although Tucumcari’s a small town, “we do have Interstate 40 and there is some poisonous cargo that moves through our city,” said Ham, adding that there are numerous rail cars that pass through city as well.

Capt. Xavier Miller, public information officer with the New Mexico National Guard, said 12 similar exercises are carried out each year to keep different agencies in shape and prepared to respond to various types of public emergencies.

Several weeks before, Tucumcari Fire Chief Mike Cherry secured the donation of a defunct bus from Milan Terry of San Jon. Agency heads were alerted, but not all the men and women in the teams knew exactly what the drill situation would involve.

Clovis’ hazmat team was called in because the exercise also included the dispersal of radiological flotsam in the debris field from the explosion.

And the Clovis team, with backup by the Tucumcari Fire Department, had to suit up in their moon suits and determine if there had been some radiological event when the bus exploded.

Although the radiated pieces were not really blasted out in the explosion but planted by the exercise coordinators, the teams still had to find the sources. Teams using Geiger counters had to walk the debris field that extended, at the farthest, 300 feet in two directions.

The items had also been marked with Global Positioning System coordinates, allowing later retrieval in the event they were not all found.

In all, between 50 and 80 people from New Mexico and Texas participated in the drill to keep their agencies and teams skilled and prepared for all types of public emergencies.