Workers at Tooele Army Depot were severely injured Monday when mustard-gas munitions they were moving from a storage igloo detonated.
"They moved them outside," said Steve Abney of the Army Depot Systems Command. "There was an explosion or a fire."An emergency operations center was activated shortly after the 8 a.m. incident. "I'm sure there were injuries because they got a lot of medical people involved," he said.
Actually, it's only a drill - but one of the most realistic and elaborate preparedness exercises ever held in Utah.
The same disaster may continue Tuesday. Or maybe the teams will discover some new scenario, as the Army's Service Response Force Exercise-1991, known by the acronym SRFX-91, continues.
The drills, which end Friday at TAD, are expected to extend off-base to local medical facilities, care centers and possibly even traffic control points. Roadblocks may be put in place beside highways, but traffic won't actually be disrupted in the fake emergency, said Susan Barrow, public affairs officer for TAD. Any type of response necessary can be simulated, ranging from county firefighters to Army crews at the base itself.
Another possible scenario - which may yet be played out - is that an earthquake could split open a chemical storage igloo, and a plume of deadly nerve agent could curl from the shattered bunker, climb into the bright summer sky and begin drifting toward Tooele.
What happens next depends on the quick wits of the Army emergency response teams, county officials and state experts. In real life, the teams' readiness adds a layer of protection for nearby residents.
TAD is an appropriate site for the exercise because it stores 10,575 tons of deadly chemical warfare arms, most of them within 15 miles of Tooele. The base houses more chemical weapons than any other in the United States, with 42.3 percent of the country's stockpile.
About 200 TAD employees are expected to become involved before the exercises are completed. In addition, some 200 comptrollers were expected from other posts, to keep the project moving. Tooele County and the state may contribute about 25 each, and 100 high-level Army officers and federal emergency management experts are expected on visitors' day.
During the exercise, controllers "set up some type of simulated accident scene. We as players aren't privy to any of that prior to the exercise," Barrow said.
If the plan eventually includes an earthquake, a crack may be drawn on a munitions igloo. If an airplane were to crash into a storage site, in this acted-out nightmare, controllers will bring the wreckage to the site. If a fire was to break out in the accident, it would be mimicked by smoke pots.
"They're going to have to do something, if you will, really far-fetched," Barrow predicted last week. "The probability of a real chemical accident is very, very low."
The Utah Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management is participating in the exercise, activating its Emergency Operations Center. The center is supposed to coordinate resources as agencies respond to the "emergency" with computer automation systems, public information and response and recovery crews.
Army teams go through a chemical service response force exercise every two years. "This is actually the third one, but this is the first time it's been at Tooele Army Depot," Barrow said.