MCAGCC, Twentynine Palms, Calif. -- The deafening roar of a car bomb and, moments later, the pitiful cries of dead, dying and injured Marines rocked the Combat Center Nov. 14 at 5 a.m.
Five Marines from the Marine Corps' Communications and Electronics School were killed in the blast and another 50 were injured, according to early reports filtering into the Emergency Operations Center. Fortunately for those Marines, neither the explosion nor the casualties were real; it was all part of an elaborate setup to kick off the base's annual disaster exercise drill.
After receiving word from 911 dispatch and patrol units on the situation at the MCCES barracks, on-duty military policemen rushed to the scene with the Criminal Investigative Division, recalled PMO personnel and members of the Crisis Management Force following close behind.
"PMO's mission is security of the base, security and containment of the incident site and the investigation into the incident in coordination with NCIS and FBI," said Capt. Brian Juaire, Deputy Provost Marshal, Provost Marshal's Office.
In addition to the 18 MPs on night watch and the 17 day watch MPs called out to the scene to set up a containment perimeter, PMO received additional assistance from 6 Marines from a nearby chow hall going to work and 34 Marines from Headquarters Battalion and Combat Service Support Group 1 which make up the Crisis Management Team and, as their primary mission, guard strategic areas around the Combat Center.
"This was one of the better, more realistic exercises in the last four years," said Juaire. "It was more realistic, because the participants were allowed to exercise their responsibilities and duties as they would in a real time situation."
While emergency personnel were called to the first scene to assist victims, secure the area and investigate the explosion, members of the base directorates set up an Emergency Operations Center in the Commanding General's conference room for communications.
"[The EOC] provides a synergistic working environment that allows the staff to develop situational awareness through rapid information gathering, sharing and analysis for quick decision making during a crisis," said Lt. Col. Steven Collins, Force Protection Officer, Operations and Training. "When a terrorist attack occurs the intent surrounds three issues; locating and treating victims, bringing organization to chaos, and restoring normal operations as quickly as possible."
"We need to do what we usually do, only under stressful conditions and a compressed time frame to save lives and prevent human suffering," added Collins. "We are very good when we have to be, but we would rather not have to prove it in an actual disaster."
Later that morning a suitcase was left near the Commanding General's vehicle and Explosive Ordnance Disposal got the call to check it out. The suitcase bomb also elevated the Force Protection Condition to Delta.
"We provided the incident commander with technical assistance to reduce any explosive hazards that were identified at each of the scenes," said Staff Sgt. Edwin Triplett, EOD technician.
Explosive Ordnance Disposal regularly provides training to maintain proficiency, including the Weapons of Mass Destruction response training that was held here Nov. 19 and 21.
"The main benefit of exercises like this is that it allows us to fine tune the coordination between us and the first responders. It also provides first responders with a better understanding of the support we can provide," said Triplett.
As EOD's steel-nerved technicians worked to disarm the package bomb, medical personnel feverishly struggled to save lives and comfort the injured.
Medical personnel from each sickcall and the entire military staff at the Robert E. Bush Naval Hospital, including their key civilian personnel responded to treat patients. Staff from the 23rd Dental Company also assisted in the treatment of victims in the Emergency Department of the hospital.
"Previous drills have always been during regular business hours while this drill occurred around 5 a.m.," explained LtCmdr. Ronald Bajet, Assistant Emergency Manager for the Naval Hospital. "This presented several challenges including using the recall roster for staff, the ability of the staff getting to the hospital with increased security measures at the main gate, communications between the base and Hi-Desert Hospital, and internal operations for treatment and accountability of patients."
Of the 50 injured victims, 15 were transported to civilian hospitals like Hi-Desert Medical Center and Desert Regional Medical Center while the rest were brought to Naval Hospital for treatment. Patients were treated for various injuries ranging from burns and bruises to cases of major head trauma. Emergency Room personnel were given a surprise challenge when injured victims with gunshot wounds were also presented to the staff. An additional four patients were received from the City of Twentynine Palms' disaster drill where a radiological bomb was set off at Twentynine Palms High School and were diverted the Naval Hospital.
"These exercises are extremely important because it helps us to be prepared to treat patients in a disaster or mass casualty situation. During a disaster, there is much confusion going on," said Bajet. "These drills help people remember their roles during a mass casualty situation, it tests the recall system, and the various training people receive in preparation for mass casualties.
The Force Protection Exercise concluded at 10:30 a.m. returning the Force Protection condition to Alpha. Returning to their regular duties, volunteers took off their bandages, washed off the fake blood and walked away from the Naval Hospital where minutes before they were lying on tables with gunshot wounds and third-degree burns. All unit personnel participating left their simulated crime scenes, but took back the knowledge of a realistic attack.
"Every capability has a different purpose with sometimes-conflicting agendas, but together they compliment each other to accomplish the mission," said Collins. "It is better to prevent an event than to have to respond to it. We need to remain vigilant and responsive. Noticing small details can sometimes prevent disaster."