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Disaster Simulation Too Realistic
Media fooled by `news' of terrorist attack

Maria Alicia Gaura, Chronicle Staff Writer
  Friday, October 27, 2000

A disaster drill in Monterey County got out of hand yesterday when disaster simulators inadvertently set off media reports that a terrorist group called the Locos had blasted a hole in Lake Nacimiento Dam, sending a deadly wall of water sweeping across the Salinas Valley.

The erroneous bulletin was reported on at least two major Bay Area radio stations, briefly electrifying Monterey County residents.

Even though corrections were promptly broadcast, the local TV station in Salinas, KFBW (Channel 8), was hammered by calls from worried residents -- so many that the station decided to lead its 11:30 a.m. newscast with a report about the mistaken drill.

Situated just past the county line in San Luis Obispo County, the 18- mile-long Lake Nacimiento drains into the Salinas River, which runs northward through King City, Greenfield, San Ardo, Salinas and Castroville before emptying into the ocean. With depths reaching 200 feet in some places, the reservoir could cover 377,000 acres with a foot of water.

Monterey officials also had to answer a good number of calls from anxious members of the public. Both they and the reporters taken in by the simulation were kicking themselves yesterday. At the same time, they thanked their lucky stars that the bogus story did not travel farther than it did.

KGO reporter Lee Schell said he broadcast a brief wire service item about flooding caused by a break in the Nacimiento Dam, then called the Monterey Office of Emergency Services for further details.

``I told them who I was and that the tape was running, and the spokesman there said, `Yes, it's true, terrorists have blown a hole in the dam, and water is pouring into the Salinas River,' '' said Schell, who lives in Salinas. ``I said to myself, `Holy s--! This is an international story!' ''

But moments before Schell was to broadcast the sensational tape, his wife

--who had made some inquiries to local authorities -- called and told him to kill the story.

``She said it was a drill that had somehow gotten loose,'' Schell said. ``It was a comedy of errors.''

Radio station KCBS also reported the dam break before setting the record straight.

``We did mention it briefly, then got a number of calls saying it was just a drill,'' said editor Mark Seelig. ``We all looked kind of goofy.''

``That does not make me feel good,'' said Joe Madruga, chief engineer of operations and maintenance for the Monterey County Water Resources agency, one of the main participants in the drill. ``A breach in the Nacimiento Dam would be a major disaster. I'm especially glad this didn't go any further.''

Monterey officials conduct similar disaster drills every three years, but this year they spiced things up by tossing in the terrorist angle and by peppering emergency operators with phony calls from workers pretending to be terrified citizens, pesky reporters and government officials.

The problem was, somebody forgot to set up the phone system to keep out calls from the real news media. Calls to the Office of Emergency Services main number were transferred directly to the workers responding to phony calls. Nobody mentioned that the disaster was a drill.

When Jason Bennert, a Bay City News wire-service reporter, called on an unrelated matter yesterday morning, he was told that high surf was not a problem, but there was a major disaster involving a break in the dam. The startled reporter immediately marked the news release ``urgent'' and placed it on the wire.

A Chronicle reporter calling to confirm the story was also told that terrorists were suspected of blowing a hole in the dam.

Harry Robins, Monterey County's emergency services manager, said his office had sent out notices to local news agencies, including Bay City, warning them that the disaster drill would be taking place. However, none of the reporters in question had been notified.

Madruga said that next time a simulation is carried out, operators will be told to inform all callers that the crisis has been manufactured.

Schell said that in hindsight, he should have wondered why the spokesman who told him about the alleged bombing was so calm.

``Hindsight is 20-20, but now I play that tape back and think, `Wow, a terrorist bombing and a terrible flood, and this guy is so cool!' '' Schell said. ``He must have had ice in his veins! He was a great actor. I've been in this business for 28 years, and nothing like this has ever gotten past me before today.''

E-mail Maria Alicia Gaura at mgaura@sfchronicle.com.

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