20 June 1998
Source: Hardcopy The New York Times, June 19, 1998, pp. A1, B6

New York Girding for Grim Fear: Deadly Germ Attack by Terrorists

By Judith Miller and William J. Broad

New York City, long viewed as one of the world's most attractive targets for terrorists, has quietly undertaken an ambitious effort to counter attacks carried out with deadly chemicals or germs, according to city officials.

The city is buying germ detectors, working out deals with regional hospitals for emergency care, striking unusual accords with drug companies to make medicines quickly in an emergency and taking steps to stockpile medications, officials say.

Although no specific threat of a germ or chemical attack has been detected recently, the city has undertaken an extensive training program since September, instructing about 4,000 city police officers and firefighters in how to handle such an emergency. Next week, about 1,500 doctors and nurses in New York are to be trained by outside medical experts.

Emergency planners face bewildering problems in preparing to deal with germ attacks, the foremost being how to tell if sudden outbreaks of illness are natural or purposeful. Malicious strikes are hard to detect rapidly since deadly microbes might incubate in human bodies for hours, days, weeks or even months before causing widespread havoc.

Dealing with waves of sick or dying victims is a planner's nightmare, as is cleaning up contaminated areas and buildings. The spores of anthrax, one of the most common biological warfare agents, can live for centuries.

Two months ago, city officials began monitoring patterns of emergency hospitalization so that they can more swiftly determine if unconventional weapons are used to attack New York. The Mayor, officials say, has asked to be personally informed of any suspicious patterns of illness.

Experts agree that skillful terrorists in theory could injure or kill thousands, if not millions, of people, but disagree on the exact dimensions of the threat. Too little is known of that shadowy underworld, they say.

Federal and local officials have become increasingly worried in recent years about the possibility of germ and chemical attacks.

Nationally, the worries stem from American intelligence reports about terrorists planning attacks and such incidents as a religious cult's assaults on Tokyo with nerve gas and germs. Locally, the danger from terrorists was driven home in 1993, when a terrorist bomb planted by Islamic militants exploded under the World Trade Center, killing 6 people and injuring 1,000.

Congress has provided about $100 million to support the training of local officials nationwide to cope with unconventional terrorist attacks. But the Pentagon said only 27 of the 120 cities in that program had received assistance so far. And many have yet to receive equipment.

Although New York has the most elaborate program, Washington has received special attention along with other cities, including Los Angeles, Atlanta and Denver.

In interviews, New York City officials said they were torn between reassuring the public by revealing the defensive preparations and panicking people with doomsday scenarios that, in recent attack studies and simulations, have easily overwhelmed the city's existing defenses.

A sizable part of the $15 million that New York City has devoted to emergency preparations has been spent on dealing with unconventional threats from terrorists. Five of the 50 people in the city's Office of Emergency Management work full time on the problem, officials said.

The city's two-year-old program is considered the nation's most advanced. "It's seen as the model," said Dr. Brad Roberts, a germ expert at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a private group in Alexandria, Va. He added that it was impossible to know if New York City was overreacting to the potential threat.

"There is no concrete answer to how bad this problem is," he said. "But we can see the risks of mass-casualty terrorism are rising. That means it's important to do something."

City officials said Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has been a driving force behind New York's heightened preparations. They said the city's planned $15 million crisis control center was part of the city's emerging defenses.

The city plans to have the ventilation system of the crisis management center near the Trade Center adopt a defensive strategy known as positive pressure, experts say. This keeps a gentle breeze blowing outward whenever a door or window is opened, automatically keeping away dangerous germs or chemicals.

"Obviously, New York is the capital of the world and as such it's always viewed as the city that faces the greatest threat," said Jerome M. Hauer, director of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. "While there is no known immediate threat we would be irresponsible if we did not plan for one, even though the likelihood of such an attack is small."

The city's defenses are being organized by the Office of Emergency Management. Mr. Hauer is also a member of a small group of scientists and public health officials who have been advising President Clinton on germ warfare and civil defense.

Until now, Mr. Hauer and other local officials have declined to be specific about the city's preparations. Some of the steps being taken and their motivation were outlined on Tuesday by a deputy director of the Office of Emergency Management, William Nagle, at a conference in Washington, sponsored by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

Mr. Nagle said the city had already negotiated memorandums of understanding with several counties surrounding it to give the city access to their hospitals and medical gear in an emergency and was close to an agreement with at least one drug company to provide "surge" capacity for the city in antidotes. A list of drugs that may be stockpiled at the city's hospitals was being drawn up.

Most important, Mr. Nagle told the 50 experts at the conference, is "education, education, education."

The 4,000 members of the city's police and fire units who have undergone military instruction of a day or more in how to deal with germ and chemical attacks, he said, have been taught to fight their instincts in such an emergency.

"Docs and nurses are all trained to run in and help," Mr. Nagle told the meeting. "If they do that with a bio or chem incident, they're going to lose it."

  Mr. Hauer, the office's director, said the city had spent more than $1 million to buy two mobile emergency trailers filled with containment vessels of different sizes that can isolate dangerous germs or chemicals, as well as equipment to respond to an attack.

It has bought several hundred portable detectors to help identify the exact nature of an infectious strike within as little as 10 minutes. One type is as small as a matchbook, and the other, known as an immuno-assay, is a boxy gadget that uses an antibody to detect the presence of a dangerous germ. New York is the first city to acquire the latter, Mr. Hauer said.

The Federal Government is sponsoring five meetings in which New York and other officials play out what would happen if the city were attacked with biological weapons. From those exercises, Federal officials plan to glean lessons that are meant to be applied nationwide, making New York a model.

In the first of those meetings last April, more than 50 scientists, Government officials and state and local emergency-preparedness teams met in secret on Washington's outskirts.

They were confronted with a chilling prospect: more than a thousand people in a 15-story office building in midtown Manhattan attacked by a germ disseminated through the unfiltered air ducts. According to the script, the spray contained tularemia, a highly infectious germ that causes chills, fever, muscle aches, fatigue and pneumonia-like symptoms and can be fatal. The germs spread quickly throughout the building, whose windows were sealed, as they are in so many modern buildings. Within 15 minutes, virtually the entire building was infected.

By Friday, 80 people were ill. By Saturday, 450 more were sick; some showed up at hospital emergency rooms. By Sunday, 550 more were sick. Only then did alarm spread through New York's medical community. As the exercise unfolded, the experts discovered how unprepared they were for such an event in New York City, despite the training of "first responders," police officers, firefighters, emergency medical, teams and others who would initially be called upon to cope with a germ attack on New York.

In the war game, officials said, by the time that doctors diagnosed the mysterious illness as tularemia and began prescribing proper antibiotics, the epidemic had run its course. Because the hypothetical terrorist had chosen a germ that causes a disease with a 35 percent mortality rate, only a third of the 1,080 people who fell ill died.

"The city's detectives were really good; so were the firemen," said a Federal official who attended the meeting. "The Mayor's office was extremely impressive, very professional. They were great at controlling crowds and cordoning off areas; they did all the right things. But still we got the maximum amount of lethality from the maximum number of infections from the tularemia terrorist attack. The scenario utterly defeated them."