How to survive a gas attack: 'First, stop breathing'

A reporter learns how to don a gas mask in nine seconds – and gets a sobering reality check .

"Gas! Gas! Gas!"

That shouldn't be too hard to shout, should it, if you ever come under chemical weapons attack?

Now try to stop breathing suddenly (without taking a deep breath first), shut your eyes tightly, turn your back to the wind and bend forward, fumble to open your backpack and find your gas-mask, fit the six-strapped contraption over your head, breathe out sharply, and then shout, "Gas! Gas! Gas!" All in the nine seconds prescribed by military manuals.

Oh, and don't panic.

That is the drill being taught to journalists who might soon find themselves in Iraq, by former Royal Marines running a course here on hazardous environments. With the papers full of news about abstract UN resolutions on weapons of mass destruction, and possible international inspections in Iraq, the lessons offer a sobering reality check on just how appalling it would be to work under the threat of a gas attack.

The instructor who gave my course was blunt: "Unless you are attached to a military unit with alarm systems that are only used on the battlefield, buying all the [protective] gear is useless," he said. "You are wasting your time if you don't know what level of readiness to be at."

But it is far from certain that, in case of war in Iraq, the US military would allow journalists to accompany troops facing chemical attack. The last thing a soldier wants to spend precious time on in such deadly circumstances is helping an ill-trained civilian.

So reporters are learning how to cope on their own. And the gas-mask drill is the easy bit.

If you aren't going to have advance warning of an attack, one option is to wear an NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) protective suit all the time. But it lasts only 28 days outside of its vacuum pack, and could easily get torn with daily use. Anyway, who could work in the desert heat dressed all the time in heavy charcoal-filled jackets and trousers, rubber overboots, and two pairs of gloves, one cotton, one rubber? Not to mention your flak jacket.

On the other hand, if you are not already wearing all that gear, your chances of getting it on fast enough after seeing low-flying planes trailing vapor, birds dropping from the sky, or artillery shells landing with only a small explosion, are "between zero and nil," as my instructor put it.

But say you are fortunate, or supernaturally swift: You are suited, hooded, and masked, and you are not drooling uncontrollably, twitching, sweating, and vomiting from the initial effects of VX nerve agent. (If you are, stab yourself in the thigh through all your clothing with a giant syringe of atropine antidote. Don't mistake your symptoms, my instructors say, or you will die from atropine poisoning, drying up like a leaf in autumn. But I digress.)

The first thing to do is to seek shelter, to decontaminate yourself of any droplets that might have fallen on you before you got your mask on. Out with the pads containing fuller's earth: Blot your gloves all over with one side (hoping you can see something through the steamed-up goggles of your mask), pat on the powdery substance with the other, then wipe your gloves clean with the first side. Do the same to the muzzle of your mask. Take a deep breath, shut your eyes, de-mask, and blot, powder, and wipe any bits of your head and neck that might have been contaminated.

Now get out of the area, heading upwind, and hoping the Iraqi positions are downwind, (though they probably aren't, or they wouldn't have used the gas). Did you have the presence of mind to put your car keys in your NBC suit pocket, or are they in your jeans pocket underneath?

In that case, you walk.

You walk until the chemical detector patches on your suit tell you that you are safe, and then you decontaminate your gloves and mask again, take off your jacket (careful not to let the outside of it touch you or your clothing), and lay it inside-out on the ground. Then step onto it, decontaminate your gloves again, cut the laces of your overboots, remove them, decontaminate your gloves again, undo your suspenders and remove your trousers, decontaminate.... You get the picture.

Then you walk, unprotected, through a war zone, leaving everything but the clothes on your back behind – your car, your camera, your laptop, your film, everything.

As we went through all these unlikely procedures on the course, I could not help thinking how relative they all were, and remembering the first night of the Gulf War in 1991. I spent it in a bomb shelter in Dahran, Saudi Arabia, with everybody else from my hotel, wondering whether Iraqi bombers might drop chemical weapons.

Only one of us, an American TV reporter, was wearing an NBC suit. In the crowd was a Saudi policeman with a handgun that he fingered nervously. If there had been a gas attack that night, I know which of those two would have ended up in the suit.

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