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Houston Drill Tests Agencies' Preparedness

During an emergency exercise, a Houston Fire Department supervisor, left, works to quickly rotate firefighting crews on and off the ship <em>Cape Trinity</em> in the Houston Ship Channel.
Photos by Jim Wildman, NPR
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During an emergency exercise, a Houston Fire Department supervisor, left, works to quickly rotate firefighting crews on and off the ship Cape Trinity in the Houston Ship Channel.
Houston firefighters practice putting out a fire on the <em>Cape Trinity</em>. They were told the trouble was three decks down in the engine room.
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Houston firefighters practice putting out a fire on the Cape Trinity. They were told the trouble was three decks down in the engine room.
A U.S. Coast Guard security team secures the area around the simulated disaster.
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A U.S. Coast Guard security team secures the area around the simulated disaster.
ExxonMobil employees team up with the Coast Guard to deploy 500 feet of deflection boom in the Houston Ship Channel. During the simulation, these boom lines were placed in six areas to contain the oil spill.
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ExxonMobil employees team up with the Coast Guard to deploy 500 feet of deflection boom in the Houston Ship Channel. During the simulation, these boom lines were placed in six areas to contain the oil spill.

A mock explosion, fire and oil spill in the Houston Ship Channel, a lifeline for the nation's busy energy industry, provided a test this week for federal, state and local agencies and their ability to work together in the event of a terrorist attack.

More than 300 people from nearly two-dozen agencies participated in the exercise. Initially, officials weren't told whether the incident was an act of terrorism. The shipping channel was closed as a precaution.

The fire later was determined to be caused by a mechanical breakdown in the engine room of the ship Cape Trinity, a floating warehouse as long as two football fields.

Many aspects of the emergency were planned for: Coast Guard teams with assault rifles and bomb-sniffing dogs secure a pier; crewmembers don camouflage gear and helmets as they take on the duties of securing the ship against possible terrorists; and, at a joint information center, officials field calls from television networks and other media outlets.

Yet the drill involved several complications: an out-of-control fire, a firefighter who's down and a 252,000-gallon oil spill that leaks from the ship when a fuel tank ruptures.

Agencies participating in the drill also included the FBI, Customs and Border Patrol, the Port of Houston Authority and local police.

Steve Inskeep talks to Joe Leonard, a Coast Guard lieutenant who leads the agency's response in the Houston-Galveston area.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.