Tuesday's move to a heightened state of alert over possible terrorist attacks was a "common-sense decision," but should not keep West Virginians from going about their business as normal, said Gov. Bob Wise.
Wise, along with other governors, took part in a conference call with national Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge shortly before the nation's terrorist threat level was raised from yellow, where it has been since March, to orange, signifying a high degree of threat. "We were told there was no specific, identifiable threat any place in the United States," Wise said. "But a decision was made to conduct ourselves as if a threat was likely." Today's anniversary of last year's terrorist attacks, paired with new intelligence that attacks may be planned for overseas American installations, make the move to the heightened nationwide alert status an appropriate one, the governor said. "I think we're very secure here," said Wise. "West Virginia is a far safer place than it was one year ago."
While it is prudent to remain vigilant in light of the Sept. 11 anniversary and the new alert status, "it's also time for West Virginians to stand together and show our unity," Wise said. The governor invited West Virginians to join him at the state Capitol today "to remember the tragedy and pay tribute to the victims and their families" in a two-hour ceremony scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. State employees will be given time off to attend the event on the north side of the Capitol.
Today's ceremony will include readings and Scripture recitations by a multifaith panel of clergy, ranging from Mohammed Jamal Daudi, imam of the Islamic Association of West Virginia, to the Most Rev. Bernard W. Schmitt, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. The bell of the battleship USS West Virginia will be rung in memory of victims of the attack, and there will be performances by the 249th Army Band and the Appalachian Children's Chorus. Also expected to attend the event is Lisa Vance, wife of Sgt. Gene Arden Vance, the West Virginia Army National Guard Special Forces soldier killed in an ambush in Afghanistan, and Clyde Shuttleworth, father of Staff Sgt. Anissa Ann Shuttleworth Shero, who died when the transport aircraft she served aboard crashed in Afghanistan.
The Office of Emergency Services' Operations Center in the Capitol basement was fully staffed and operational within seconds of the heightened terrorist threat alert. What began as a terrorist-thwarting drill Tuesday morning was rapidly converted into a genuine response to the new alert status. A 48-hour training exercise called Ready Mountaineer I had been underway for more than three hours when Wise and Secretary of Military Affairs and Public Safety Joe Martin were summoned to the conference call with national Homeland Security officials. The software-directed counterterrorist scenario involved members of a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaida targeting sites in Kanawha, Wood and Monongalia counties for attacks with harmful chemical agents. The first segment of the drill had just ended when Martin received word of the heightened alert.
Martin immediately suspended the drill, and ordered the software switched from a training mode to an operational mode. The two dozen representatives of emergency response agencies on hand for the drill began working 12-hour shifts, which will continue at least through Sunday. Agencies represented in the center include the FBI, National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard, State Police, State Fire Marshal, state Department of Health and Human Resources, the state Division of Highways and the American Red Cross. Wise said he ordered the drill to take place in conjunction with the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, to have the response system up and running should a real threat take place. "I'm very confident this Sept. 11 will be much safer than last year's" said Martin. "We're much better prepared than we were then." Emergency response improvements that have taken place in West Virginia during the past year include: The establishment of bi-weekly, information-sharing homeland security meetings with other states and federal agencies. The identification of potential terrorist targets within the state, and the installation of security systems to better protect them. The updating of a comprehensive state anti-terrorism plan. The establishment of the West Virginia Watch program, designed to allow citizens to help law enforcement official by reporting suspicious activity, in 35 counties. The increase in security forces for special events such as Bridge Day, which will have four times the previous number of officers on hand for this year's event. The development and distribution of 400,000 copies of "Getting Ready: A Family Emergency Guide," a booklet offering practical advice on how to cope with natural disasters or incidents of terrorism. The acquisition of a new mobile command center for the Office of Emergency Services. The creation of a five-member, full-time State Police special operations unit of bomb technicians. Legislation increasing penalties for making threats of terrorist acts and terrorist hoaxes. It is now a felony to "knowingly and willfully" threaten to commit a terrorist act, punishable by possible prison terms of up to three years. It is also a felony to create a terrorist hoax, punishable by prison terms of up to five years. The receipt of a $10 million grant to pay for the development of effective responses to public health threats. To contact staff writer Rick Steelhammer, use e-mail or call 348-5169.