Mass Casualties: A Terrorist Crime-Scene Primer

Terrorist crime scenes are generally different from all other crime scenes, especially those involving terrorist attacks that result in mass casualties, and therefore present a unique set of problems for law-enforcement personnel in terms of complexity, crime-scene management, and the quantity and types of resources needed.

First, there is the matter of scale. Most terrorist crime scenes, especially those involving bombing attacks, encompass an area of land (and/or, sometimes, water) much larger than that of an “ordinary” crime scene. The Pan Am 103 crime scene, to consider but one notorious example, was spread out over 65 square miles; the crime scene for the bombed UTA flight covered more than 250 square miles.

To deal with the first of those disasters, every square foot of the massive area around Lockerbie, Scotland, where Pan Am 103 came down, was examined by British investigators. Ultimately, a tiny piece of a Swiss timer, no larger than the fingernail on a man’s little finger, was recovered.

Because it subsequently was traced to Libya, the timer fragment proved to be a critical piece of evidence showing that Libya was involved, in one way or another, in the conspiracy to blow up the U.S. jetliner.

Individually and together, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City were the largest single-site disasters in U.S. history. The crime scene there encompassed almost all of lower Manhattan and other nearby areas, involved thousands of law-enforcement authorities, firemen, and investigators working around the clock for weeks and months, and the removal and sorting through of tens of thousands of tons of debris – in which a literally uncountable number of human body parts were embedded.

Chemicals, Politics, and Other Bloody Side Effects 

Which brings up a second typical characteristic of terrorist crime scenes – namely, that they often are contaminated with scores of hazardous materials, including blood products and toxic chemicals.

A third typical aspect of terrorist crime scenes is that there is frequently a potential conflict between the hope to preserve the area as a crime scene and the more urgent requirement to address the needs of victims, particularly those who might still be trapped in the debris. In such situations, understandably, law enforcement is almost always forced to take a backseat to rescue operations.

Yet a fourth factor that must be taken into consideration is that, because of the large numbers of responders required to carry out a broad spectrum of tasks and responsibilities, there often are overlapping, and sometimes competing, layers of command and control, involving a varying but frequently large number of agencies. Not surprisingly, this usually leads to, among other difficulties, some serious communications problems.

Finally, because of the large number of victims, and the impact on state and local agencies as well as the federal government, terrorist attacks are, almost by definition, inherently political – and for that reason often become media circuses.

The All-Important Question; An Encyclopedia of Answers 

Perhaps the most important question facing contingency planners at all levels of government, therefore, as they prepare to deal with such issues, is this: What should law-enforcement agencies do to better prepare for such attacks? Following, in the subject areas indicated, are a few comments, recommendations, and suggestions:

  1. Planning and Exercises – The more planning done and training exercises completed prior to an “incident” the better. There will be no time available to work out the answers to problems once the incident has occurred. The degree of success law-enforcement agencies will enjoy in alleviating suffering, restoring order, minimizing property losses, and determining criminal responsibility will be directly related to the amount of time and effort that they have devoted to planning and preparing for such incidents. Exercises, in particular, will reveal problems related, for example, to overlapping lines of authority, differing law-enforcement cultures, traffic control issues and the dispersal of emergency equipment, the communications difficulties mentioned earlier, and deficiencies in the resources needed.
  2. Secondary Devices – Law-enforcement agencies and individuals responding to suspected terrorist crime scenes must now, always, be aware of and on the lookout for secondary explosive devices, which have become increasingly common in recent years in terrorist attacks throughout the world.
  3. Equipment and Resources Needed – Because mass-casualty terrorist crime scenes are often contaminated by blood, body parts, sewage, and toxic chemicals – including PCBs from transformers and other dangerous substances – every effort must be made, as an initial and continuing priority, to protect first responders and crime-scene investigators. Among the equipment items that should be readily available at all times are gloves, hard hats, steel-toed boots, HAZMAT suits, respirators, and face masks. Portable generators and high-intensity lamps also will be needed so that rescuers and investigators can work around the clock if necessary – as after the 9/11 attacks. Barricades and pylons also are required to keep unauthorized persons from intruding into the crime scene. Digital cameras and video equipment will be needed so that the entire crime scene can be properly recorded – from as many angles and views as possible. Finally, body bags, evidence bags, storage boxes, and possibly auxiliary morgue facilities – such as refrigerated trucks – are on the mandatory resource list. A shortage of any of those items at the time of a terrorist attack – more accurately, before the attack takes place – might seriously handicap investigative efforts.
  4. Immunizations – Because terrorist crime scenes are almost always contaminated, especially when there are decomposing bodies, it is strongly recommended that all rescue workers be immunized for – at least – tetanus, cholera, diphtheria, and typhus.
  5. Identification of the Dead – This also has to be a top priority, not only to alleviate the suffering of victims’ families, but also for the settlement of estates, the validation of wills, proof of death (for insurance purposes), the possible remarriage of surviving spouses, and legal and financial adjustments of partnerships and businesses. Another reason for the complete and accurate identification of victims is that the kinds of wounds they suffered, and/or any shrapnel found in their bodies – all of which must be considered evidence –might assist in solving the case. For that reason alone, criminal investigators must be trained in body tagging, the precise recording of recovery locations, and the mundane but important filling out of disaster-victim forms. It should be kept in mind at all times that a simple scrap of clothing or piece of jewelry may be critical evidence in identifying a body, particularly in situations where fingerprint or dental records are inconclusive or not available.
  6. Money and Logistical Support – The investigation of terrorist crime scenes almost always requires a huge amount of hard work and the extraordinary expenditure of both time and money. The sheer magnitude of the rescue, investigative, and recovery work required may involve thousands of people – all of whom will need food, shelter, and sanitary facilities – and mandate the early and continuing availability of a broad spectrum of equipment, reliable communications systems, and other logistical support. Tons of debris may have to be removed from the crime site and carefully sifted for clues. In addition, disposal sites must be found for the debris, which might well be hazardous and lead to other problems that only the Environmental Protection Agency may be able to deal with.
  7. Media Support – By their very nature, terrorist crimes tend to be high-profile news events. The more celebrated the victims, or the greater their number, the more likely it is that the media will have a major interest in the incident. Whether they want to or not, federal, state, and/or local authorities on the scene will have little choice but to accommodate the media, because any effort to ignore them, or to bar them from the crime-scene site, is likely to result in a flood of unfavorable publicity and, justifiably or not, unpleasant criticism. To deal with such situations, all members of the media who show up at the crime scene should be properly vetted and, if they are legitimate representatives of the print or broadcast media, issued appropriate credentials. They should, however, be restricted to a clearly designated area where they will not be in the way and cannot disrupt or contaminate the crime scene. Preferably, that area should be a location – as in the Oklahoma City bombing – from which television news teams, for example, can film the disaster site in the background for the standups by on-camera reporters. Any reporter who violates the reasonable rules set down by the site commander can, and justifiably should, be expelled from the area and not permitted to return. Regular briefings for the media also are important. Such briefings should be both substantive and, whenever possible, responsive to the questions asked by the reporters. Here it should be remembered that, when reporters believe that briefers are being unresponsive, they will invariably look for other sources. That might lead, in turn, to rumors and inaccuracies in their stories – and later press coverage might therefore take on a hostile tone.
  8. Nuclear/Biological/Chemical Attacks – The personnel responding to mass-casualty terrorist attacks should be trained to sample the site, as quickly and as thoroughly as possible (while at the same time observing all relevant safety precautions), for chemical, biological, or radiological agents and residues. The failure to do so may turn what is already a serious calamity into a catastrophe of much greater magnitude.
Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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