Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Chemical Assault Paralyzes Capital
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, February 17, 2003 --
Emergency workers continue to work around the clock to help restore the nation's capital after a devastating chemical assault that began early Sunday morning. Remarkably, only one person has died from injuries related to chemical exposure, despite widespread panic, and over 1,300 calls for police assistance in Maryland alone.1 States of emergency are in effect in the District of Columbia and surrounding states, and lingering fear continues to paralyze the city.
The prolonged assault began when enormous clouds of dihydrogen oxide vapor were witnessed nearly simultaneously at locations throughout the Washington area. Concern turned to panic when the chemical vapor turned into heavy powder, which experts call a "precipitate," and began to settle on homes, schools, and - most frighteningly - human flesh. As the chemical residue began to plummet out of the sky, parents could be seen struggling to cover their children's exposed skin.
The chemical clouds appeared to dissipate by Monday afternoon, although authorities warn that they can't rule out new waves to the assault. Few Washingtonians could be seen outside in the aftermath on Monday. Roads were almost deserted, cluttered only by the cars along the sides that drivers had abandoned.
The only traffic remaining were emergency vehicles and high-clearance trucks able to ride on top of the debris that covers the ground. In neighboring Maryland, Governor Robert Ehrlich ordered all civilian traffic off the roads. More than 50 National Guard humvees have been dispatched to patrol the devastated state.2
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the assault, although the Department of Homeland Security had warned terrorists might strike with chemicals. Batteries of Avenger anti-aircraft missiles installed around Washington last week3 were not fired, and no threatening planes were identified. Hundreds of aircraft passed over Washington on Saturday, and witnesses widely reported that the clouds of dihydrogen oxide first appeared in the sky.
Secretary Tom Ridge placed the country under a code Orange alert two weeks ago, warning that al-Qaeda may plan an attack to correspond to the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj. Ridge's office advised Americans to purchase duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal windows in the event of a chemical attack.
There were some reports that residents in the affected area had followed recommendations to seal drafty windows, thereby reducing exposure to strong winds that spread the dihydrogen oxide in both vapor and precipitate forms. The relationship between the low death count and these preparations has not been confirmed.
D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams quickly returned to Washington from a vacation in Puerto Rico to coordinate the city's response to the state of emergency. Hundreds of response teams are applying a substance to afflicted areas that will neutralize the effects of the chemical precipitate. The primary agent being used is a compound of chlorine and sodium in granular form. Experts say this substance helps alter the form of dihydrogen oxide so it dissipates more easily.
Residents are being advised to stay indoors, but most are too terrified to venture out despite the warnings. Almost all businesses are closed, and officials say that schools and government offices will remain shuttered for the foreseeable future.
Staying inside is the best way to avoid the harmful effects of dihydrogen oxide, exposure to which can be fatal. Warning signs of critical exposure levels include choking and the inability to walk upright or maintain control of a motor vehicle.
Author's Note: Dihydrogen Oxide is the chemical name for what is commonly known as water in liquid form, and snow or ice in solid form. Two weeks of terrorist warnings, alarmist weather reports, and a touch of cabin fever may have affected my style of reporting on the beautiful snowstorm that blanketed Washington over the weekend.
1. Washingtonpost.com, The Digging Begins, February 17, 2003
3. The Washington Times, Anti-Aircraft Missiles Deployed to Bases Around D.C., February 13, 2003