With hopes for the best, he prepares for the worst
Seattle Times staff reporter
What to do about the dead bodies? It's the indelicate question that no civil person wants to ask, and one of many that Eric Holdeman is paid to answer. This one stumped him, as it did everyone who took part in a recent exercise involving a hypothetical explosion of a radiological bomb, aka a "dirty bomb," in downtown Seattle.
Holdeman, 52, is King County's master of disaster, the high priest of preparedness — monikers that describe his work better than the bland title on his business card: "Manager of the Office of Emergency Management."
For the past 10 years, first with the state and now with the county, he's dealt mostly with floods and windstorms — "weather stuff." On Sept. 11, his life, and possibly the very nature of his profession, changed.
Like his counterparts around the country, Holdeman has turned most of his attention to preparing for every conceivable cataclysm short of Armageddon.
"You can't come up with a scenario that is too farfetched," he says. "Not anymore."
Military experts have told Congress that the detonation of a dirty bomb by terrorists in a major American city is now a credible threat.
The bomb is a crude device that uses conventional explosives to scatter radioactive material over a wide area. It's sometimes called the "poor-man's nuke" for its low cost and relatively low technology, which is why it is such a viable threat: the materials are plentiful and the bomb easy to make.
Holdeman and a cadre of colleagues from Seattle and King County return this weekend from a weeklong training session in Washington, D.C., on how to deal with a dirty-bomb attack.
Like most places, Seattle-King County is ill-prepared for the worst. On a scale of one to 10 in readiness for a major terrorist attack, Holdeman says "at a maximum, we're at a five."
This was made clear at a recent "tabletop" exercise, in which officials from local emergency, health and police agencies gathered to plot their response to a hypothetical terrorist attack. The scenario involved a dirty bomb exploding near the King County Courthouse. The exercise revealed some gaping unknowns about how to answer the most basic of questions, such as, "What do you do with the dead and injured?"
In the scenario, hundreds of people are killed near the heart of the explosion, and a larger area is contaminated with lethal radiation. People need to be removed or rescued, but there are no protective suits that shield against the most lethal forms of radiation.
"There are dead bodies lying in the street and there's public pressure to recover the bodies," Holdeman said. "But in order to drag them out, the radiation dose would put rescuers over the line.
"Do you send them in?"
Old budget, new world
Such crude inquiries seem incongruous coming from a man who exudes such a refined demeanor. But, in fact, Holdeman has spent a large portion of his life dwelling in the unpleasant and unthinkable. He is, by vocation, a gentleman speaking necessary profanities.
Holdeman has crystal blue eyes and an egg-shaped head made rounder by virtue of a biweekly scalp shave. He dresses with meticulous care, speaks with a slight lisp and smiles incessantly, revealing large, straight, white teeth — a virtual wall of goodwill. "Someone who smiles as much as you do," a Department of Defense official told him, "makes me nervous."
Holdeman radiates calm, whether in a bureaucrat's huddle or speaking to hundreds of fellow disaster planners at a bioterrorism conference. His strength, says his wife of 32 years, is borne of a steely faith. He leads a weekly Bible study and prays and reads devotionals daily, which might explain how he copes with such equanimity.
Armageddon has been on his radar in one form or another for the past two decades. While in the army in the 1970s and '80s, he was assigned to a special unit whose primary responsibility was planning for the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union on the continental U.S.
He retired from the army as a major and went straight into civilian emergency management. Inside his office, in a low-rise brick building next to Boeing Field, sit numerous, neatly arranged piles of paper, each pile representing a particular new threat.
He is, by his own admission, an "anal-retentive type," a compulsive organizer and cataloger. On his desk sit five large Rolodex files filled with — he punches a button on his Palm Pilot to get the last count — 2,608 names.
They are the names he must call upon in the event of a disaster. When a river overflows or a quake rattles the earth, he commands the center's "war room" to direct the emergency response, much like a military commander directing platoons of soldiers and medics and engineers.
The county pays him $86,760 a year to run a full-time staff of five on an annual budget of $849,000. It's an old-world budget being applied to a post-Sept. 11 world.
Emergency-response agencies nationwide are vying for slices of the $3.5 billion pie the federal government has proposed to disburse for terrorist defense and public-health preparedness.
Holdeman concedes that not every threat can be planned for, and no amount of money can make Seattle and King County absolutely terrorist-proof.
"Some things will get worked on, and some things won't," he said.
When Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, testified last month before the U.S. Senate that "radiological attacks constitute a credible threat" to U.S. cities, "dirty bombs" became one of the threats to be worked on.
Biological weapons such as anthrax, or chemical weapons such as sarin, require sophisticated labs and a high level of expertise. Dirty bombs can be made from radioactive substances found in thousands of places in industry — substances such as cesium, cobalt and iridium that are used to kill pathogens in food-processing plants or as probes to test welds and pipelines.
The most lethal material — radioactive waste from nuclear-power plants — can be found in more than 70 sites in the U.S. alone. While those sites are heavily guarded, their counterparts in other countries, such as Russia and its former republics, are not.
A dirty bomb would not be as lethal or destructive as a real nuclear bomb; its main purpose would be to create panic and chaos — in short, to terrorize.
The public's knowledge of radiation tends to be linked to horror stories from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where thousands died of radiation-caused illnesses. Simply uttering the words "bomb" and "radiation" in a public announcement, says Holdeman's colleague, Rich Tokarzewski, would be enough to cause panic.
Most information about radiological bombs is theoretical. Saddam Hussein reportedly experimented with them in the late 1980s, but nothing is known about those experiments.
But hints can be gleaned from other incidents. In 1987, outside the Brazilian town of Goiânia, scrap collectors scavenging an abandoned radiological clinic found a few grams of cesium 137 and chopped them into pieces. Of the 429 people exposed, four died and many got sick. Officials destroyed 85 contaminated houses and collected several tons of contaminated clothing and furniture. Incidents like these are used as talking points in tabletop exercises, which reportedly are taking place at every level of government, all the way to the White House.
The hot zone
The King County tabletop begins like this: "On Wednesday, March 20, at 8:15 a.m., a truck bomb explodes near the King County Courthouse at the intersection of 5th Avenue and James Street."
It takes three full days to assess the situation. It's determined that the bomb was made of two tons of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel, and it dispersed a radioactive agent called iridium 192.
By the third day, an area within a six-block radius of the blast is evacuated. The casualty count: 237 known dead, 444 injured, 129 missing. Most of the dead were killed by the blast. Radiation kills more slowly.
Two major hospitals lie within the hot zone and have been evacuated, overloading the entire region's medical system. Both city and county governments have been disrupted and moved. Interstate 5 has been closed.
"Any terrorist who pulls this off is going to win the first round," said Jim Mullen, Holdeman's counterpart at the city of Seattle.
It is the military's job to prevent such an attack. It is the job of emergency managers to figure out how to respond in the moments, hours and days after an attack.
Among the more emotional topics at the tabletop session was what to do with the dead still in the hot zone. Holdeman says the room split down the middle, with half advocating for retrieval, and the other half arguing to wait.
It's the nature of post-Sept. 11 America, Holdeman says, that emergency planners will be going down roads they have never gone down before, facing issues never faced. When they debrief from last week's training, Holdeman and his colleagues might have some answers for those hard questions.
It's one step on a long road.
Alex Tizon can be reached at 206-464-2216, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What to do
If you learn that a nuclear or radiological (dirty bomb) detonation has occurred, don't panic. Tune a radio to your local emergency-broadcasting network and listen for instructions. Keep a battery-powered radio at hand.
Stay inside unless you've been instructed to evacuate. Close windows, turn off the ventilation system and stay toward the center of the building.
If you think you've been contaminated, change into clean clothes and place used clothing in a plastic bag. Take a shower with lukewarm water and plenty of soap.
If you were in or near the "hot zone," watch for symptoms of exposure, such as reddening of the skin, nausea and diarrhea. Seek medical help as soon as possible.
(Source: Washington Department of Health. The agency will be posting fact sheets on radiation and radiological bombs on its Web site: www.doh.wa.gov.