Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It


If you think S.F. is ready for a terrorist attack – even two years-plus after 9/11 – think again

Wednesday, Jan 21 2004
On a gorgeous, warm November morning, a small army of San Francisco cops, sheriff's deputies, FBI agents, and other would-be terrorist fighters gathers behind Pac Bell Park to test its chops. Armed with guns and laptops, the law enforcement officers are about to engage in a full-scale field exercise titled "Terrorist in the Water."

The scenario: A terrorist on the Larkspur-to-San Francisco ferry shoots one of two Coast Guard marshals aboard and holes up in the stern. The surviving security officer spots a suspicious backpack on deck; an emergency is declared. The ferry captain and his panicked passengers head for the dock adjoining the ballpark.

About 200 law enforcement officers, national guardsmen, firefighters, and paramedics -- everybody who is anybody on the Joint Terrorism Task Force for the Bay Area -- meet the ferry. The group sets up a field of fire around the dock. Snipers peer from the giant Coke bottle that dominates the stadium. Waiting nearby are ambulances, prisoner vans, communication vans, command vans, public relations vans, even a food van.

According to several law enforcement officials, the goal of the exercise is to capture the terrorist so he can be interrogated about other terrorists who may still be at large. A dead terrorist, obviously, tells no tales.

The drill is put on hold for 20 minutes when a boatload of schoolchildren unexpectedly shows up. As the last kid scampers away, the ferry captain finally pulls into the dock. SWAT team members edge their way down the gangway, weapons trained on the vessel. When they get close enough, they hurl flash-bang grenades, temporarily disabling the terrorist. But suddenly one of the cops starts shooting. The rest of the SWAT team follows suit, blasting away with blanks until the suspect has been "killed" several times over.

Although the troops have just completely screwed up the exercise, a number of commanders grin and laugh from their vantage point on a ballpark patio. After all, it's a beautiful day, and nobody seems to be taking things too seriously.

San Francisco Police Chief Alex Fagan smiles as gun smoke wafts up from the ferry. He gestures toward the police sharpshooters in the Coke bottle. In real life, he says, the terrorist would never have made it to the dock. "When that ferry was still out in the bay, we would have splattered his fucking brains all over the deck."

"What if the terrorist was wired with explosives?" asks an SF Weekly reporter.

Fagan pauses, a thoughtful expression on his face. "That could be a problem," he concedes. "Maybe we should have tossed him a cell phone."

More than two years after 9/11, San Francisco remains ill prepared for a terrorist attack. In interviews, a wide range of city emergency officials admitted they lack proper plans, equipment, and training to cope with the devastation and chaos of a chemical, radiological, or biological assault. Consider:

The city's written emergency operations plan, which is supposed to guide those on the front lines of a disaster, is an outdated mess -- because, say numerous critics, municipal leaders are not taking anti-terror planning seriously.

Nobody in city government seems to know who is in charge of doing what during and after an attack.

Although police are supposed to seal off contaminated areas at gunpoint, they do not have the equipment or training necessary to contain crowds of panicking people.

There are no plans for an orderly mass evacuation of the city.

The Health Department is not ready to systematically decontaminate and medically treat the hundreds or possibly thousands of victims of a chemical, biological, or radiological weapon.

City government is not prepared to protect and repair vital infrastructures like the port, water and power delivery systems, transportation and communication facilities, and important buildings such as City Hall.

If buildings come crashing down in an attack, the city is not capable of mounting heavy search-and-rescue missions.

The city cannot feed and shelter large numbers of people displaced by an attack for more than two days.

During a catastrophe, our leaders will have trouble talking to each other because the emergency communications system is full of electronic holes.

"There is little we can do to increase security," claims the city's fatalistic former emergency operations chief, Lucien Canton. "A lot of it is common sense, like staying out of underground garages. We try to mitigate, but in the back of our minds it's going to happen. And if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, you are screwed."

Mayor Gavin Newsom recently replaced Canton with Fagan and sent his remaining department heads a memo saying his administration will give "high priority" to emergency preparedness. The mayor instructed that a fresh emergency operations plan incorporating "the new technologies and new threats of the modern age" be drawn up by June 30. Newsom also reactivated the city's Disaster Council, which is supposed to prepare for and coordinate the local response to terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Under ex-Mayor Willie Brown, the council hadn't even met since October 2001.

Despite his new initiatives, Newsom insists that San Francisco is ready for terrorists. But after interviewing about 20 government emergency officials and reviewing thousands of pages of city planning documents, SF Weekly concluded that the mayor's optimism is far from warranted.

President Bush's National Strategy for Homeland Security calls upon the public to "accept [terrorism] as a permanent condition ... [we must] mobilize our entire society ... [terrorists are] lurking in the shadows ... unbounded by the traditional rules of warfare." But critics say Bush's position is extreme. Its logical outcome is a semipermanent militarization of American society, at a cost of untold billions. As the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank that analyzes U.S. foreign policy, points out, "There is no natural limit to what the United States could spend on emergency preparedness ... [we] could spend the entire gross national product and still be unprepared."

About The Author

Peter Byrne


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"