Practicing for terrorists
Gun shots rang out from a window on the third floor of the Annie Day Shepard Residence Hall on the N.C. Central campus. Shadowy figures behind the window shouted, “Get back, get the hell back.”
Members of the Cary and Pinehurst tactical teams moved stealthily by the side of the Hoey Administration Building, their assault rifles pointed at the open window from where the shots came.
“They’re shooting from that building. I got two bodies down,” one of the team officers shouted. “Two bodies down there. They aren’t moving.”
On their radio, an urgent voice said, “There’s three or four down in the field over there, but we’ve got five or seven alive.”
A team member near the front of the line, at the edge of the Hoey building, shouted, “There’s a guy with a rifle on top of the building.”
“If you get a shot on him, you shoot him.”
Suddenly, two scared young women, running quickly up the steps from Rush Residence Hall, neared the line of heavily armed officers.
“We’re hostages,” they screamed, almost in unison. “They’ve killed three people already.”
“Get down, get down,” several men shouted at them, and the two women immediately got flat on the ground.
From the window, a voice shouted to the tactical team members, “You point that weapon at me, we’re gonna blow you away. You think this is a game?”
In fact, it almost was.
It was practice.
Operation Eagle Swoop Thursday brought together more than 20 tactical teams from police forces and emergency response agencies throughout the area for the largest full-scale training exercise to be held on a campus within the UNC system.
Nearly 250 people — including 40 volunteers posing as hostages or victims and 18 members of the Durham SWAT team acting as terrorists — spent most of Thursday confronting a terrifying, worst-case scenario.
“We’re doing this to be prepared for a major incident,” said Sgt. Robert McLaughlin of the NCCU police department, the emergency management incident commander for the exercise. “We’re not talking about just one shooter here. We’re talking about terrorists, multiple bad guys. This is like in that Russian theater or what happened in Mumbai.”
The teams came equipped for the worst.
While the campus was empty of students, armored vehicles rumbled up Fayetteville Street. A gigantic Wake County EMS Multiple Patient Transport bus remained ready to receive the wounded, carried hurriedly by medics on portable stretchers.
The exercise included emergency medical care “because we learned at Columbine what the lack of tactical medic care meant,” McLaughlin said.
Tactical force members, some in camouflage, some wearing helmets or black balaclavas, many with bullet-proof vests, slung their assault rifles across their shoulders and breathed through their gas masks.
Bill Norvell, a senior officer with the Raleigh Police Department, carried a Colt M 4 assault rifle, a Smith & Wesson handgun and around 100 rounds of “simmunition” — marker bullets that would leave a paint blotch but not injure.
“These are our regular weapons,” Norvell said. “Only difference is the bullets and we’ve changed the bolts in the rifles so there are no accidents. But you want to make it as real as you can.”
Making it real is the idea, McLaughlin said.
“Usually when something like this happens, it is the real deal,” he said. “That’s what we want to be prepared for. We want to be prepared for any major incident that could happen.”
Radios crackled with real orders — “Command to all units: go to Alpha 3 on viper radio, go to alpha 3” — and teams deployed around the northern end of the campus, smoothly as clockwork.
Planning for the exercises began in September and involved a number of Durham first-responder agencies. Since a mass shooting at Virginia Tech University in 2007, the UNC system has required two exercises a year for its schools. This one was the biggest yet, and the first at NCCU.
The goal, said McLaughlin, was to rescue the hostages “with the minimum amount of injuries and loss of life.”
The benefit, said Brian Temple, a detective with the Clayton Police Department, is getting to work with different agencies.
“Everybody has different teams and different radio frequencies,” he said. “This tests our ability to work together, which is what we’ll need to do. Training is key to doing our jobs.”
The teams spent much of the day working together. “When there’s a single active shooter,” McLaughlin said, “the incident is usually over in 30 minutes. But having multiple shooters tests how well we can deal with a protracted incident.”
More shots rang out from the windows of the residence hall. Hostage negotiators moved in closer. A tactical officer shouted, “seize the perimeter.” Medics carried out more “victims” on stretchers.
“You want another on the ground?” shouted one of the “terrorists,” who seemed to be toying with the force members. But nobody was smiling.