“Time and tide wait for no man,” Mark Twain once said. “That may very well be true,” Dr. Sam Frederickson thought, “but try working a twelve-hour shift here for a while.” Sam was a staff geologist at the National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado who normally found his duties monitoring world-wide earthquake activity interesting, but today he would much rather have been home watching the big game on TV. He was still fiercely devoted to "his team" even though he finished his degree more than a decade ago, and the thought of missing the action was driving him crazy. It was little consolation he had set his VCR to record the game because he knew beyond any doubt he would hear the results somehow before he got home, and the surprise would be spoiled. Just as he was about to bemoan his bad luck for the umpteenth time the monitors along the wall of the command center erupted in a frenzy of activity. Almost as if on auto-pilot, Sam swung into action, running a series of diagnostics to rule out equipment malfunction while simultaneously activating the NEIC alert roster. As he waited for his boss to pick-up, he checked the wall, and just as the voice on the other end of the line said hello, the monitoring equipment pinpointed the epicenter – at which point, Sam dropped the phone in disbelief.
Napoleon is supposed to have said,“An army marches on its stomach” and that was precisely why LTC Joe Smith was in his kitchen, building himself what he proudly referred to as “the mother of all sandwiches.” Joe was the current operations officer for one of the Army’s modular divisions, and he put in long hours every week as the division worked its way through a myriad of transformation challenges. He had been so disappointed at not getting his hands on a ticket to see his beloved alma mater play in its first-ever NCAA tournament his family agreed to leave him alone with the TV remote so he could at least cheer them on from home. The TV was tuned in to a pre-game show, and as he settled into his favorite chair he decided to check CNN during the next commercial break so he could “maintain his global situational awareness”—in reality, he hated TV commercials and thought watching CNN was better than channel-surfing. After a couple of minutes listening to nothing of any real importance to him or his unit, he switched back to the game just in time for the opening tip-off. He was relaxed, his supplies were in easy reach, the big screen picture was crystal clear, and the kids had strict orders not to disturb him.
“You can ask me for anything you like, except for time.” The cell leader was an educated man with a military background, and he found himself thinking once again that Napoleon was right. On the surface it appeared all was on schedule. The “regular” packages his comrades had meticulously built over the past four months were pre-staged around the city. The “special” package, the one made from the rare materials so many of his brothers had died for, was operational and loaded on the delivery vehicle. The weather, as Americans liked to say, was picture perfect. Even the target was ready, with fifteen thousand unsuspecting sports fans crowded into the downtown arena. Today was definitely the day when the plan came together and made for an opportunity he could not miss. His only problem, he needed more time. Against all odds, the truck they were going to use to deliver the “special” package refused to start. The big game was about to begin, and the clock was literally ticking.
Joe was cautiously optimistic – his team was hanging in there against a perennial Final Four, and he was beginning to entertain the notion that maybe, just maybe, this was the year something spectacular happened when the TV went blank. “No!!!” he yelled, loud enough to startle his kids upstairs, “not now, not today you worthless piece of,” when what he saw next stopped him. The TV was showing news helicopter footage of what looked to be severe damage to some city road network, with lots of smoke (from fires or collapsing buildings, he couldn’t tell) making the cameraman and pilot’s tasks difficult. Joe heard a newscaster’s voice in the background say something about a massive earthquake near a U.S. city, roads being cut and the status of water and power being unknown, but it was what Joe saw scrolling across the bottom of the screen that stunned him into silence. Apparently, the epicenter of the quake was located within a few miles of the basketball arena where the game was being played, and already emergency services crews and first responders were reporting difficulty negotiating their way through the city to make initial damage estimates. Joe sat back, processing the information, when the phone rang. It was the division G3 Operations Officer. “Joe, this is Colonel Peterson. I want you to head into the office and monitor the earthquake situation.” “Wilco,” Joe replied, hanging up and turning to see his wife standing in the doorway with a worried look on her face. “I’ve got to go in to work for a while, and I don’t know when I’ll be back – the G3 wants to have us ready to react to any short notice tasking that Corps might send our way.” After saying goodbye to the kids, he made his way to the garage and loaded his truck with his alert gear, more out of habit than anything else. For most of the drive his attitude shifted between professional interest in the developing earthquake situation and personal disappointment at missing the most exciting part of the most important game in the history of his small school. “Of all the days, it had to be today” he muttered to himself.
The floor moved, and the walls shook, but the building stayed intact. The cell leader’s first thought was “Someone has beaten us to it!” but realized, after turning on the TV, that it was something different entirely. The news reports were sketchy, but he was able to learn an earthquake had hit the city – what he had to determine now was how this new situation affected his plans. It took more than an hour of watching TV and listening to police scanners to determine that a half dozen of the “regular,” pre-staged packages with remote detonation receivers probably remained operational and, most importantly, the route to the primary target was trafficable. He didn’t foresee any problem getting the truck to the detonation site – it was, after all, an old city emergency services vehicle, and it had never been stopped before on their rehearsal runs. His military training taught him to recognize a tactical opportunity, but it also taught him those opportunities never lasted long. Just as he was about to yell for yet another update on the truck’s status, the team's mechanic burst into the room. “It runs!” he shouted. “Don’t shut it off,” the leader yelled back, “we are changing our plans. We go now.”
By the time Joe arrived at the division HQs, the field officer of the day had developed an initial assessment based on news reports and information provided from Northern Command’s Emergency Operations Center. Roughly two hours after the earthquake hit, the situation on the ground looked bad but not impossible. City and state emergency services crews were reporting some success in deploying damage assessment crews throughout the area, and despite the TV footage that revealed some roads damaged beyond trafficability and one residential neighborhood fire, there didn’t seem to be any evidence of widespread panic. He gave instructions to his staff to continue monitoring the situation. While they worked up a situation report, Joe sat down to give some thought to how this event might affect the division’s upcoming deployment exercise. He hadn’t been away from the EOC for more than ten minutes when SFC Alesandro, the noncommissioned officer in charge on duty, stepped into Joe’s office. In all the time Joe had known him, SFC “A,” as he was known around the headquarters, had never, not once, appeared upset by any news, or tasking, or unforeseen event — but now, the look on his face was one of pure anger mixed with a little shock. “You’d better come back to the EOC sir,” he abruptly said, “the situation just got worse, a lot worse.”
The cell leader was strangely calm as he maneuvered the truck over damaged streets and around emergency response vehicles that seemed headed in all directions with no sense of purpose. He alone knew the reason for the confusion was that six of the IEDs planted 24 hours earlier by his team had survived the earthquake and had exploded as planned. Never one to give up control willingly, he had elected to use a command-detonated system—based on his personal cell phone—rather than trust a set of timers. He alone was able to trigger the attack because, even after all the time he and his team had spent together over the last four months, in the end, he could only trust himself to see the plan through to its glorious end. He detonated the remote bombs just before he pulled out of the garage at the team safe house. He knew it was a 20 minute drive to the arena, and he counted on most of the traffic moving in the opposite direction in response to the explosions. What he didn’t count on was the size of the crowd outside the arena—all their rehearsals were based on detonating the final device during the game. He almost panicked, fearing he wouldn’t make it to the designated parking spot, when he realized fate had smiled on him. A huge crowd of unsuspecting targets was milling around the arena, exposing themselves to a danger in a manner he never could have hoped for. His last thought as he reached for the switch was a fervent hope his family would be proud of his sacrifice.
Joe jumped to his feet, more because of the look on SFC A’s face than the words he heard. One of the TVs in the EOC showed an aerial shot, but this time there was a lot more smoke and what looked like a bunch of small fires scattered around the city. Joe was about to say something when he saw everyone was watching another TV, this one showing a news reporter broadcasting from a street corner.
“We are live at City Hall,” the young man was saying, “where we have learned from a city emergency management official police have confirmed six simultaneous explosions have destroyed two electricity sub-stations and damaged several water pumping sites critical to fire fighting efforts. And in what may turn out to be the most significant piece of information yet, just a few moments ago a source inside the city emergency operations center told us first responders reported abnormal levels of radioactivity near a seventh explosion site right next to the downtown arena. When I asked the source to explain exactly what that meant, he replied “We haven’t confirmed it yet, but it looks like someone might have detonated a dirty bomb.”
It only took a few seconds for those words to sink in, and when they did Joe turned to SFC "A" and said “You were right—this changes everything. Get the G3 on the phone now, and have the staff prepare a battle update brief I can give to him and the CG.”
Thirty minutes later Joe had finished briefing the G3, who himself had just returned from a VTC with the Corps staff. “The State was on top of the situation right up until the reports of the dirty bomb started hitting the news,” Col Peterson told Joe, “but after that, it lost the ability to handle the crowds, and the fires, and all the search and rescue tasks that now have to be executed in a contaminated environment. The Governor didn’t waste any time asking the President for help, and NORTHCOM got the call to activate a disaster response joint task force. We’ve been designated the JTF HQs, and I want you to take charge of the advance party. We’re flying you into an airfield about an hour from the city—it was far enough away to have avoided any runway damage. You’ve got room for four wheeled vehicles and no more than 20 soldiers. Get on the ground, locate the folks in charge, and start to coordinate for the main body arrival. Your job is to find out what we are supposed to bring to this fight. And one more thing Joe,” the colonel said, with the merest glint of anger in his eyes,” go armed. We don’t know exactly what the situation is on the ground, so I want you prepared to protect yourselves if necessary. Get moving, you leave in two hours. I’ll be right behind you in the division assault CP.”
“Wilco sir,” LTC Smith replied, and he left the G3’s office to give instructions to his staff. It wasn’t until his advance party was wheels up in a C-130 that he was able to start thinking his way through some of the bigger questions. After an hour he had to admit to himself he didn’t have a clear idea what his unit might be called to do, what capabilities it was expected to bring, and, more importantly, what tasks he might be expected to perform. “I don’t even know what I don’t know” he finally admitted to himself. “Where are all the smart guys with their handbooks when you really need them?”