For gas alert, masks, panic, hubris

Thursday's Scud warning tested training, and sparked frenzy, for cities and troops.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

"Gas!! Gas!!" The masked soldier was yelling as he ran into the Bravo Company tent.

It was about 12:30 p.m. Thursday in an Army camp in northern Kuwait, and although the soldiers didn't know it at the time, this was no drill.

Minutes earlier, Iraq had launched three missiles with unknown contents toward US ground forces in Kuwait. Radios crackled with the news in battalion headquarters, and the surreal image of Oliver North broadcasting for Fox News in a gas mask appeared on a television screen.

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Across the desert, in the packed bomb shelters of the Kuwait City Sheraton Hotel, it looked like a scene from a hastily made science-fiction movie: Employees and journalists scrambled to the sound of air-raid alarms, donning gas masks and metallic chemical-weapons suits.

Nearby, a dozen Filipina pastry-shop workers in black aprons lunged for one door, bumping up against Kuwaiti military men in black masks heading for another. After a few minutes, several dozen journalists in ultra-modern security suits marched down a black stairwell to a specified bomb shelter.

As the slow-motion scenes unfolded, miles of sand apart, concern and chaos swept over civilians and soldiers alike. In Kuwait City, few people knew which they were running from: bombs, anthrax, or nerve gas. In some cases - and in some sectors - people were ready with gas masks, hideaways, and airtight rooms. But for others, it was like the first hectic fire drills of childhood. And beneath the rush of motion and ripples of fear were the gnawing, enduring questions: Does Saddam Hussein still have Scud missiles? Will he launch them? And are they tipped with chemical or biological weapons?

In Kuwait City, official warnings came half an hour after Iraqi missiles landed some 30 miles north of the city center. Kuwaiti police continued to man machine guns as other security officials double-checked suspicious cars for possible Al Qaeda agents hiding out in the sea of panicked people.

As foreign workers streaked toward shelters outside, a gaggle of stoic, unfazed taxi drivers stood smiling with their arms crossed, showing how ill-prepared even Hussein's closest, wealthiest neighbors are for the possibility of a real chemical attack.

While well-heeled Kuwaiti families - who enjoy some of the world's highest per capita incomes - shuttered their windows and dashed for duct-taped chambers, poor workers in the downtown district showed far less concern for their own safety.

Among a crowd of about 100 foreign workers in line for pita bread at one of Kuwait City's largest bakeries, only one of them - a short, pot-bellied Indian gentleman - had a gas mask in his pouch at his side. Others in the line said they could not afford the $100 it could take for such precautions.

When the air-raid warnings sounded, male workers in a Yamaha motorcycle sales and repair shop tossed down their wrenches and pens and ran for cover.

Sales manager Tasir Saleh unleashed a nervous chuckle, but remained behind his desk eating a morning meal of rice and mutton. "That is music to the ears of Saddam Hussein," he said. "I'm not going to pay him the respect to panic."

For the Camp New York troops, though, it wasn't an issue of respect. Soldiers scrambled to put on their M40A1 gas masks - something they train to do in nine seconds. They pulled the straps tight, slapped their hands over the air filters, and breathed in, hoping the masks would collapse - the sign of a tight seal.

"Get in the bunker!" a sergeant yelled, and the troops piled into a tunnel-like concrete structure reinforced with sandbags. With sweat beading on their faces, they sat in rows holding their rifles until the next order came, moments later: "Go to MOPP 4!"

MOPP 4 means full chemical gear: charcoal-filled pants and hooded jacket, rubber boots and lined rubber gloves. "Battle buddies" helped each other with ties and snaps.

By then, the heat was almost suffocating, and the soldiers sat quietly, conserving energy. Some drank water from special straws that ran from their masks to one-way openings on their canteens. Finally, word came that the danger had passed: "All clear!"

For the most part, the soldiers had reacted swiftly. But there were mishaps, some of them major. One soldier discovered he had no mask. "We can't make you want to live," a sergeant scolded him. "Things can happen this fast," he said, snapping his fingers.

Given the threat of more attacks by Iraqi missiles and artillery filled with chemical agents, US ground forces preparing to invade Iraq are likely to cross the border already wearing their chemical protective suits.

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