Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Fuel Trucks and Terrorists

It has been a while since I looked at a simple chemical accident through the eyes of a potential terrorist plotter, but there was an interesting vehicle accident in Harrisburg, PA last week that pointed out how easy it would be for a terrorist organization (or even a serious lone wolf) to utilize something as ubiquitous as a fuel tanker as a terrorist weapon. The CumberLink.com web site has excellent coverage of the accident.

The Accident

The accident was routine enough. A diesel fuel tanker overturned on a freeway off-ramp, leaked and the fuel caught fire. The first part is common enough, the second not so much and the third relatively rare. The driver escaped with minor burns and no one else was hurt. But, the fire kept burning.

Think back to the 9/11 tower collapses in New York City. The actual attack was simple enough fly an airliner into a building. Presumably the passengers were killed instantly as were many people in the impacted areas of the buildings. But what captured the horrified imagination of the world was the subsequent collapse of the twin towers because the heat of the fire weakened the metal structure of the buildings.

The same type thing occurred here. The heat from the fire was hot enough to cause steam ‘explosions’ in the concrete and weaken steel beams to the point where engineers fear that the overpass could collapse under its own weight. The overpass is closed as are the freeway lanes underneath pending demolition.

Fortunately the accident happened at 6:10 a.m.; well before the morning traffic jam would have put thousands of people in harm’s way.

A Terrorist Attack

So, imagine a terrorist with a hijacked fuel tanker, in rush hour traffic in a major metropolitan area. Stop the truck with the trailer on a busy overpass and detonate an IED under the trailer, causing the trailer to rupture and the spilling fuel to catch fire. Not only would you have the infrastructure damage seen in Harrisburg, but multiple vehicle fires and explosions with the resulting chaos, death toll, and visible destruction that shows so well on the evening news.

That would be well within the skill set of a lone wolf, but it could be even worse with a terrorist cell. Multiple trucks used to isolate a section of elevated freeway packed with rush hour traffic. Hundreds of people trapped between two fireballs and subsequent explosions as car fuel tanks rupture and add to the destruction, chaos and panic; thousands of YouTube videos replaying the scene.

Response or Prevention

We live in a dangerous world and it could get worse. We have been fortunate that terrorists have not seriously targeted this country. We are vulnerable at every turn and just because the attacks have not yet happened does not mean that they cannot. We are not going to be able to prevent all (or even most) determined attacks so we must begin to consider how we are going to respond to them.
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