A City Rocked, A Team Ready
This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of CST & CBRNE Source Book.
By Major Matthew Woolums
At 0500 on 15 April 2013, our personnel as well as personnel attached from the 13th (Rhode Island) and 24th (New York City) WMD-CSTs moved out to begin operations for the 117th Boston Marathon. We had done this mission several years previously and were prepared to conduct operations as we had done in the past. Little did any of us know this was not just another operation but instead a day that would live with us forever.
At about 1448, 1SG Gary Mauk and SFC Max McKenna, RECON NCO, informed me they were headed to the finish line to troubleshoot our remote sensors. At 1450, I was standing outside our Tactical Operations Center, two blocks north of the finish line, when I heard and felt the first explosion. Initially everyone was silent, trying to determine what produced the blast. Approximately 10 seconds later, the second blast rang out—something seemed seriously wrong. The crowd panicked and began fleeing the area. 1SG Mauk and SFC McKenna were running back toward my location with a sea of civilians behind them desperately trying to evacuate the area. All I could think about was the safety of our personnel in the vicinity of the blast. We had six personnel unaccounted for, and CPT Veronica Mack, Operations Officer, was unable to reach them by radio or phone. That is when 1SG Mauk and I jumped into our command vehicle and raced to the finish line.
The Harrowing Scene
We were the third vehicle on-scene, and what we saw upon arrival was horrific. The extent of the damage and injuries was immediately apparent. Debris and glass were blown across and down the street. A distinct smell of a gunpowder hung in the air as smoke lingered. I was especially surprised by the amount of blood.
Within minutes, we were able to account for all of our personnel. We learned later that in the chaos, our lights and sirens acted as a rally beacon for our personnel. SSG Frank Charette, SSG Jason Maguire, and SGT Samantha Lord were all within a couple hundred meters of the blasts. SGT Mike Wall and SGT Saul Rodriguez were about 30 meters from blast site No. 1. Ironically, this blast site was the team’s designated shift-change location, and they had changed shifts just minutes before the explosion.
All five of the individuals in close proximity to the blast immediately rushed to provide aid while conducting metering for radiologic or chemical materials. Fortunately, the medical tent was only about 200 meters away, so medical personnel, including several doctors, quickly triaged victims. Once 1SG Mauk and I arrived, the survey personnel began providing reports on their negative findings to us, the Boston Fire and Police HAZMAT personnel, and the FBI HMRT Team Leader who arrived on-scene just moments after WMD-CST command. Before long, EOD was responding to a suspicious package. Concern was growing about tertiary devices: There had been two detonations, and it was too early to rule out more IEDs. Our personnel began ripping apart the lower portion of the grandstands to search under them for additional IEDs. Having completed as much reporting to HHQ as communications would allow, I moved toward the stands and began to assist in the visual search. As soon as all the victims had been cleared from the scene, we evacuated the area.
Instinct to Protect, Duty to Respect
To prepare for events such as this one, you must build muscle memory. You have to train until it becomes second nature. That way, even in an event as shocking as IED detonations in downtown Boston and amid the chaos, what you need to do happens instinctually.
It was hectic on Boylston Street that day—the dead, the injured, the screaming, the blood. The lights flashing and sirens blaring while police officers and others yelled, trying to get EMS in and out. It all just contributed to the chaos and confusion. But through it all, our personnel were able to stay on task and complete their mission of ensuring there were no additional threats associated with the blast. They carefully and methodically screened ground zero for radiological and chemical dispersal. Once certain the scene was free of these materials, they began clearing the area of additional IEDs, tearing the bleachers apart and crawling on hands and knees under the grandstands. They did all of this without a single word of guidance or direction; they just knew what to do because they trained.
In terms of respecting the integrity of the scene for further response from local EMS, EOD, and the FBI, we understand there are many first responders who have a job to do. I believe that personnel in our field should get to know and train with these organizations so that one is familiar with their response protocols and procedures. This helps ensure CST personnel can react in a manner that disrupts other responders and the crime scene the least. WMD-CSTs, for example, understand most incidents they respond to will be crime scenes requiring investigation. This simply means disturbing as little as possible while doing our job.
A list of lessons learned from
our response to the Boston Marathon
bombings and maxims I found valuable
while reflecting on my experience there:
-Expect the unexpected and expect mission creep.
-Flexibility and creative thinking are critical.
-Training is important, but it will never perfectly
emulate the way events play out in reality.
-Expect equipment failure and build redundancy.
-Build relationships with interagency partners and
train with them. A familiar face during a disaster goes
a long way.
-Have a plan to communicate team health and
welfare to families and consider the impacts an
event like this has at home.
The Importance of Communications
While still on-scene, MA Adjutant General Major General L. Scott Rice walked up to me and said, “Get me General Grass.” It’s not every day you’re directed to get the Chief of the National Guard Bureau on the phone. Cell phones were down, and the tall buildings made satellite communications a challenge. Although it took a few minutes—it seemed like forever at the time—we were eventually able to reach the general’s office.
Communications are always a challenge, and several layers of redundancy make WMD-CSTs well equipped to communicate. We put just about all of our communications assets to work that day. Some failed, and some worked well. The lesson for us: train with them all, train with them often, and know what to do if they fail.
Upon taking command last year, I could not have imagined such a tragic event happening during my tenure. I could not be prouder of the actions of the members of my team and those from the 13th and 24th WMD-CSTs. I thank each of them for their commitment to duty and professionalism and for the selfless courage they demonstrated that day. It is an honor to serve in the WMD-CST community beside such professionals.