June 12, 2008 · Updated 10:45 AM
Nearly a dozen armed hijackers took the MV Quinault and its passengers hostage Monday morning shortly after it left Colman Dock in Seattle, killing at least two Washington State troopers and several crew members and passengers.
Luckily, the terrorists were only actors, and the guns they toted shot bullets full of paint. They were actually state troopers only pretending to hijack the boat, working in tandem with members of the Kitsap County Sheriffs office, the Seattle Police Department, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Washington State Ferries(WSF), along with other agencies, in a hijacking response drill.
WSF spokeswoman Susan Harris-Huether said the purpose of the drill was to bring the ferry systems current emergency policies and regulations off the drawing board and into action, simulated as it was.
We wrote these policies in a vacuum, said Harris-Huether. We need to find out if they will work and how they will work.
Harris-Huether said WSF has been performing similar drills on a much smaller scale in the months following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but this was the first of its magnitude that included so many different law enforcement agencies.
The drill, she said, was made possible by a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which set aside funds to support security related exercises after the terrorist attacks within the top 100 transit agencies across the nation.
The hostile takeover scenario, she said, was designed by WSF Emergency Coordinator Dick Fife, while WSP Det. George Mars coordinated the law enforcement end, bringing all the SWAT teams together and planning their responses. Though without any real-life ferry hijacking incidents to draw on, Fife and the other agencies had to make up most of the situations as they went along.
We basically created a worst-case scenario, said WSP spokesman Glen Tyrrell.
The scenario Monday began with numerous possible terrorists shooting two state troopers and taking over the engine room on the lower level of the ferry, then soon coming upstairs to take control of the passengers.
Then, as they held the group hostage, local law enforcement agencies received calls for help from the boat, and numerous SWAT teams descended on the ferry, which proved to be the toughest part of the exercise rough waters made boarding the large vessel very difficult, and later plans to transport the passengers to a smaller foot ferry were scrapped and also one of the most important procedures to practice.
(The WSP SWAT team) continually trains, Tyrrell said, but we rarely practice boarding a boat that is underway. We train on a regular basis on boats in the harbor that are usually tied up.
Another crucial element of the exercise was that, although most of the participants had a basic idea of what they were to supposed to do, even the officers had no idea what their fellow actors were going to do.
Only the bad guys knew what they were going to do, said Tyrrell.
WSP Sgt. Robert Veliz said he had no idea what the teams from the other agencies had planned, and volunteer hostage Chris Boseth said although he was supposed to help overpower the hijackers, before the drill he wasnt sure exactly how he was supposed to do that.
I have no idea what is going to happen, said Boseth, a student and firefighter in training at Bates Technical College, as he waited for the drill to start, so whatever happens is real.
Most of the passengers were Boseths fellow students, and another large group were local Red Cross volunteers. A concerted effort was made to infuse reality into the interactions between the hijackers and hostages as well, including having the mock terrorists ordering the passengers to block the windows to protect the hijackers from potential gunfire, and having one passenger constantly demanding medication and another collapsing from fright.
Anacortes residents Patty Hutchins and Barbara Ritts, volunteers from the Anacortes-San Juan Islands chapter of the Red Cross, said they were happy to be a part of the exercise, and were very interested in its success, given that their community, along with the surrounding San Juan Islands, is so ferry-dependent.
Both women praised the realism of the drill. Ritts, a former nurse, said she had been through many such situations in the past, both mock drills and real bomb scares, and she said the crowds behavior much as the actors did.
Hutchins, however, said she wanted it to be a bit more real.
I think they should have used cap guns, Hutchins said, that way they could shoot them at the ceilings and they would make more noise.
Hutchins said she also thought the drill would help to create invaluable rapport amongst the officers, which she said was crucial in an emergency situation.
Members of the Kitsap County Sheriffs office Special Weapons and Tactics(SWAT) teams agreed, saying this drill helped them forge a relationship with the SWAT team from the Seattle Police Department, an agency they rarely worked with.
The partnerships this exercise helps grow are extremely vital, Tyrrell said.
Tyrrell said now the groups, collectively and separating, will be evaluating the exercise and deciding what worked and what didnt work. Each agency had evaluators present who did not participate, but watched and videotaped the action to provide critiques afterwards.
The whole purpose is to keep the ferry system from being a target, Tyrrell said. Were working very hard to keep people safe.