SWAT team trains for handling terrorism on a ferry

In a practice drill, half a dozen SWAT team police rush the front of a ferry where two of 10 terrorists hold 50 passengers hostage. The SWAT team yells for the terrorists to drop their weapons. The terrorists refuse. Mere seconds later, both terrorists are "killed," covered with paint pellets. One hostage is shot several times.

Nearby, officials from the U.S. Coast Guard, three police jurisdictions and the Washington State Ferries are observing the scene, taking mental notes. A Coast Guard official offers his criticism.

"In reality, they would've all been blown up," he says, pointing out that the terrorist with explosives strapped to his chest was also shot.

Yesterday, the Coast Guard, ferry system, State Patrol, Seattle Police Department and Kitsap County Sheriff's Office conducted a joint training exercise, simulating a hijacking onboard a ferry in Yukon Harbor, in Kitsap County due west of Blake Island.

The exercise was financed by a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation as part of a nationwide effort to support homeland security.

Ten state troopers acting as terrorists for the day stormed the ferry in the morning, holding as hostages 50 volunteers who posed as passengers. The SWAT team and the terrorists each had their own script, but neither was privy to the other's. The hostages had no script — and few clues about what the other players would do.

Had a real-life terrorist threat been handled the way it was yesterday, all the passengers probably would have died. Still, drill planners seemed pleased with the results of the training.

"We made a lot of mistakes today, but that's the reason we do the exercise," said Joe Nortz, ferry system operations director. "The value of this exercise is only as good as what we learned from it."

Sgt. Chris Fowler, who was in charge of the day's operation for SWAT team members from the Seattle Police Department, co-led roughly 50 members of the combined SWAT team as they jumped on the ferry wielding semi-automatic paint guns.

In what resembled a scene from an action movie, the SWAT team disembarked from high-speed boats cruising alongside the ferry at full speed. They used special ladders to quickly climb on board, and within a minute, the ship's car deck was swarming with the SWAT team.

Storming up the stairs, the SWAT team effectively picked off the terrorists until reaching the hull, where hostages were being used as human shields. Then, a SWAT team member shot the suicide bomber, not knowing that, according to the script, that terrorist was to be strapped with dynamite.

"What you're trained to do is to be able to make a decision in the blink of an eye," Fowler said.

Bruce Gaudette of the Coast Guard said the goals were three-fold: for the various agencies to develop relationships, to follow procedures and to work on effective crisis communication.

In the following weeks, the participating agencies will meet to evaluate the drill. Gaudette said they'll review and ask each other, "Hey, when we exercised these procedures, do they still work for you?"

Jason Margolis: 206-464-2145 or jmargolis@seattletimes.com.