12/22/08 — Air Force, officials test local response

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Air Force, officials test local response

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 22, 2008 1:46 PM

A hostage situation in downtown Goldsboro turned deadly Dec. 12 when the man who perpetrated it detonated a bomb inside the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base gates.

And while it was only a test, base officials said they were very pleased with how airmen from the 4th Fighter Wing and 916th Air Refueling Wing responded.

Orbit Comet, an annual, weeklong disaster exercise that brings together base and local first responders, is seen as a vital training event by those who plan it.

"It's our best opportunity throughout the year to operate and inter-operate with the downtown Emergency Management Services," said Steve Spencer, director of plans and evaluations at Seymour Johnson. "The main goal is to test that inter-operability, see how well we can work together and familiarize each other with the others' capabilities."

Members of the Goldsboro Police Department and personnel from Wayne County Emergency Management Services and Wayne Memorial Hospital participated in the exercise.

In fact, the incident began outside the gate.

The scenario

A disgruntled former military reservist took hostages at Century 21, the place he worked while serving.

Goldsboro police sent their SWAT team to handle that particular crisis, and once the man was interviewed, it became clear that credible evidence of a threat against Seymour Johnson had been discovered.

"He was settling all scores," Spencer said.

The man told police he had been staying in a house on Slocumb Street, so the next day, members of the 4th's Explosive Ordnance Disposal detail joined them at the scene.

"This was his lab, if you would," Spencer said. "He had been squatting in there, had assembled his explosive device there."

Investigators found maps of the base, bomb-making materials and other incriminating items.

But before they could do much searching for the explosive on base, it went off.

"There were injuries and so we had to request Wayne County EMS ambulance support," Spencer said. "And the casualties were taken to Wayne Memorial Hospital for a mass-casualty scenario."

The aftermath

Spencer says Orbit Comet was about more than simply testing Seymour Johnson airmen in the face of a disaster.

It also gave the very newest members of the Air Force a firsthand look at a pressure situation.

"It's a good opportunity for them to see it in action," he said.

"So when it does happen, it's not like you haven't seen it before," added Maj. James Lee, chief of exercises and inspections.

And while certain things -- communication in particular -- can always be improved upon, he felt pretty good about the base and its ability to work with entities outside the gates.

"I think without a doubt, Seymour is ready to respond to an event like this," he said.