By Dylan Darling
The Record Searchlight
MOUNT SHASTA, Calif. — Bomb blasts that blew apart a car and a bus at Shasta Dam were distractions to allow terrorists time to take hostages and control of the nation's second-largest dam.
Luckily for the north state, the dramatic scenario Wednesday was part of a 12-hour terrorist drill at the dam and not real. The goal was to ensure local, state and federal agencies could respond to such a situation and reclaim the dam.
More than 250 people from more than 20 agencies took part, said Sheri Harral, Shasta Dam's spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation. "It's not just a couple of agencies," Harral said. "It's 20."
Led by the Bureau of Reclamation — the federal agency that oversees the massive concrete dam that creates Lake Shasta — medical, fire and police agencies responded to the mock terrorist attack.
During the drill the dam, the roads leading to it and a pair of popular fishing boat ramps were closed.
Part of the Bureau's Critical Infrastructure Crisis Response Exercise Program, which started in 2003, the exercise was the first of its kind at the dam, Harral said.
Similar drills took place at Utah's Flaming Gorge Dam in 2003, Washington's Grand Coulee Dam in 2005 and Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona line in 2008. A similar drill is set for Folsom Dam next.
The federal government identified the six dams as possible terrorist targets.
Harral said the reclamation bureau's role in the drill took 18 months of planning and cost $500,000.
The other agencies that helped in planning and performing the drill covered their own costs.
The Shasta Dam scenario began with the two mock bomb blasts followed by the "Red Cell" terrorist group taking over the dam in an effort to free one of their fellow marijuana growers from prison.
Holding three people hostage, they threatened to flood the Sacramento River by rolling open the drum gates atop the dam. Those gates hold back the nearly full lake.
To show their seriousness in the drill, the Red Cell twice pretended to release water from the dam.
Each of the dam's three drum gates can release up to 66,000 cubic feet per second when the dam is full — 198,000 cubic feet per second in all — while the river's channel can only handle 79,000 cubic feet per second, said Pete Lucero, reclamation bureau spokesman in Sacramento.
Such a terrorist attack could flood parts of Redding and the Central Valley. "The river channel won't be able to handle the water coming out of (Shasta Dam's) gates," he said.
In the end, the Shasta County SWAT team raided the dam and the hypothetical flood didn't happen. "We had them go in, search for and neutralize the Red Cell," Lucero said.
While the drill offered the bureau a chance to see how its security at the dam would respond to such an attack, and the SWAT team the opportunity to test its skills in the field, Lucero said it also provided training for medics, firefighters and bomb squad members.
About 30 students studying to be firefighters played the role of the bus bomb blast victims, with tags telling medics their injuries.
Near the end of the drill late Wednesday afternoon, Lucero said everything went according to plan.
He said it was too early to tell what changes, if any, might be made as a result of problems discovered during the drill.
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"That we will know later on tonight and as we debrief it tomorrow," he said.