By Mark Cantrell
It is our worst collective nightmare: a terrorist attack on our home soil. This time, a bomb has gone off in a subway car, blowing a gaping hole in the side. But I can’t see it; the explosion took out the power in the tunnel, and I’m standing in the blackest darkness I’ve ever experienced. As the car fills with choking, acrid smoke, I’m surrounded by the bloodcurdling screams of the injured and dying. Suddenly, a sharp beam of light stabs through the murk, and a reassuring voice tells us help is on the way.
Although the car I’m standing in once ferried passengers, I’m not in a subway. I’m observing a rescue scenario taking place deep below a mountain, in a tunnel managed by the West Virginia National Guard: the Center for National Response (CNR). The “victims” are paid actors, and the smoke is generated by a machine, but the exercise feels all too real. And that’s a good thing.
Located about halfway between Charleston and Beckley, W.Va., the CNR, once known as the Memorial Tunnel, was a part of the West Virginia Turnpike. The two-lane passageway was carved through Paint Creek Mountain in 1953, requiring the removal of 30 million cubic yards of earth and rock. In 1987, the tunnel was bypassed by the newly constructed Interstate 77, rendering it obsolete. Three years later, various state agencies began using it for fire testing, storage, and other purposes. Not long after, the Department of Transportation signed an agreement with the state of West Virginia to use the tunnel for smoke and fire mitigation exercises.
At the time, the Big Dig in Boston was running into a host of technical difficulties, so the facility was employed to test novel ventilation methods, including jet-powered fans to boost airflow through tunnels during construction. Above the entrance of the CNR, three large circular ports still mark the jet fans’ former mounting points.
By 1997, terrorism was on the rise worldwide, but no sophisticated training facilities provided a place where first responders and the military could practice antiterrorism and rescue operations without alarming the public. At that point, West Virginia’s adjutant general, Army Maj. Gen. Allen E. Tackett, had an idea. The nearly 3,000-foot Memorial Tunnel would be perfect for that purpose, he realized, so Tackett approached then-U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) with the concept. Byrd broached the idea to Congress, which directed DoD to establish at the Memorial Tunnel facility a cost-effective crisis-management and crisis-training facility for military first responders and concurrent testing of response apparatus and equipment.
That decree resulted in the creation of the Joint Interagency Training and Education Center (JITEC), with the CNR as its centerpiece. Construction began in May 2000, and soon the tunnel was filled with staging elements, not unlike movie sets, that lend a high degree of realism to the various training exercises held there. “We can simulate any type of emergency,” explains Army National Guard Col. Randall Isom, JITEC commander. “We can do tunnel collapses, rail disasters, vehicles on fire, or collisions — just about anything you want.”
Army National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Annie, the CNR’s administrative officer, explains one of the benefits of training at the CNR is soldiers are away from their bases, far from distractions. These are no canned exercises, either: They’re entirely commander-driven, and just about any type of scenario is possible. Operators can create various atmospheric effects in the tunnel, from fire to smoke and wind, and can raise or lower light levels to whatever suits the current training mission. “I can make it so it’s noon, or I can make it so it’s midnight,” Annie says. “I can affect the way you perceive sound. I can change how well you can see. I can make it still. I can make it windy. I can make you feel good — or I can make you pretty miserable. I would argue that there’s nowhere else in the country where that’s possible to the extent we can do it here.”
A local and national resource
The CNR is part of an initiative called Joint Base West Virginia, providing a facility where National Guard troops can train before deployment. “We’ve created opportunities for our men and women who live here in the state to be able to train for a national mission,” explains Lt. Col. David P. Lester, West Virginia National Guard state public affairs officer. “We wanted to make sure they had a realistic place to practice so they can fulfill their mission when it’s time.”
Since its inception, the CNR has hosted a variety of National Guard units, as well as law-enforcement agencies, first responder groups, and other military units from across the country. The CNR’s high-fidelity simulations allow those who will find themselves on the frontlines overseas — or after a disaster — the opportunity to experience a faithful facsimile of combat conditions or catastrophes in a safe, realistic, and controlled environment.
One of the issues facing the National Guard was the lack of a practical training course for mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) armored fighting vehicles. “For some of our guys going to Afghanistan, their training consisted of driving around a flat parking lot to familiarize themselves with the vehicle,” says Lester. “Never were they taken to a course that actually mimicked what they would face in-country.”
To address that shortcoming, the West Virginia Guard partnered with local coal companies to create an MRAP course using reclaimed mining land around the CNR complex. Working with a team that included veterans who had experienced the war in Afghanistan, the Guard constructed a 13-acre network designed to reproduce the roads that crisscross some of that country’s more forbidding terrain.
“One of the significant killers of soldiers in Afghanistan was rollovers — the inability to get out of the vehicle,” says Lester. “So we not only teach soldiers how to drive an MRAP but [also] how to egress the vehicle in a rollover. We try to cover the whole gamut.”
The day of my visit, fire and police responders from Portland, Ore., trained at the subway explosion area. “A response like this, in this type of scenario, is very rare,” said Mike Unsworth, a sergeant on the Portland Metropolitan Explosive Disposal Unit. “That’s why we traveled from Portland to West Virginia to do it. We train routinely, but we do not have a scenario with a rail car, smoke, and victims and control of the environment like they do here.”
Although I knew full well it was just a practice exercise and I was perfectly safe, after standing in total darkness amid smoke and chaos, I understood the visceral relief experienced by victims who see that first beam from a firefighter’s flashlight. The trainees were struck by the sense of realism as well, said Liani Reyna, a police sergeant with the Portland Police Bureau Emergency Management Unit who was instrumental in finding the CNR and bringing her fellow first responders for training.
“This is the first time in quite a while that we’ve worked with live actors, and I think they provide a sense of realism and urgency,” she noted. “We could tell from up in the command post, by what’s coming through the radio, that they really give it a live feel. We’ve had our firefighters and police officers doing extrications and carrying people [and] working with the actors, and it’s been really good training.”
A versatile venue
In addition to the subway station, the CNR features a simulated chemical/bioterrorism lab, a real overturned tanker truck for HAZMAT training, and a rubble room that simulates a highway tunnel collapse. In another area, a series of simulated caves lead to a terrorist bomb-making chamber and a chemical weapons lab. Along the way, simulated IEDs keep trainees on their toes. Outside the tunnel, an aircraft fuselage and a mountaintop laboratory offer more opportunities for training.
While the Portland first responders were busy at the subway scenario, Marines from the 26th Expeditionary Unit out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., were training in the biolab, wearing thick green biodefense suits. With their faces obscured by fogged visors, the soldiers looked for all the world like a Hollywood depiction of aliens from outer space. Watching them move about the lab, testing and probing for various deadly substances while accompanied by the soft beeping of their sensor equipment — and realizing such a scenario is definitely in the realm of possibility — was chilling. At the same time, it’s reassuring to know if the worst occurs, highly trained people will be ready to respond.
The list of entities that have used the CNR for training is almost as long as the tunnel itself. It includes all the service branches, the FBI, members of the U.S. Special Operations Command, the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Red Cross, and many first-response organizations from across the country. But first and foremost, the CNR is a National Guard facility built on military values.
“Soldiers build trust and relationships during the fog of war,” says Lester. “We find that teams who have been through the experience here come out much stronger. Being able to count on your buddy when it’s dark, there’s smoke, and people are screaming — even if it’s just a simulation — really brings teams together.”