January 4, 2002
In December 2000, the US military opened a new training center in West Virginia (run by that state's National Guard) that has proven particularly timely. The facility uses an abandoned two-lane highway tunnel that is half a mile long to train troops (and civilian rescue workers) for operations in tunnels, caves, and collapsed buildings. Parts of the tunnel have been configured to look like a collapsed tunnel, and others to seem like the parking garage of a collapsed building. One section has a twenty-vehicle pileup, another like a subway station hit by chemical weapons, and yet another like an underground laboratory for drugs or weapons of mass destruction. Most terrifying is the "egress trainer", a forty-meter plywood complex of small rooms, dead ends, tiny passageways, and traps that looks like the tunnels of Chu Chi, or, unfortunately, like the World Trade Center. Filled with smoke, fumes, noise, sneaky instructors, simulated bodies, and real live rats, it teaches people to escape from (or conduct rescues in) collapsed buildings.
Major General Allen Tackett, head of the West Virginia Guard, started to speak up about homeland defense in 1991. He came up with the tunnel idea after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and the foiled plots to bomb two New York City tunnels. He pushed harder after the 1995 Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. Unable to get Pentagon support, he went to West Virginia Senator Byrd, who never met a plan to spend Federal dollars in West Virginia that he did not like. Byrd got $8 million from Congress to start the tunnel project, which opened for business in December 2000. It has been used by Army, Marine, FBI, Red Cross, and even British units. But Senator Byrd was not finished. He got another $400 million to turn the West Virginia Guard's Camp Dawson into an anti-terrorist training center. When it opens, this will include indoor and outdoor firing ranges, urban combat grounds, tall buildings for training in hostage rescue or other raids, and a center to train decontamination units. The first element of this facility (a conference center with almost 200 hotel rooms for visiting troops) will open next March. It is named for Senator Byrd.--Stephen V Cole