Practicing For Terror

SWAT teams drop from the skies and swarm quiet streets in search of terrorists. Crowded buses get blown apart by suicide bombers. But Cynthia Bowers says residents of Playas, N.M., don't even bat an eye — they live in a town where all hell breaks loose … all the time.

"It kind of scares me that we have to have a place like this in our society," says local resident Brenda Manos. "But it's reassuring to know that we have one."

When the local copper mine went bust a few years back, Playas was left nearly deserted. Enter New Mexico Tech University, which had the idea to turn the ghost town into the centerpiece of its anti-terror training operations.

"We think it's vital for people to get firsthand experience, not just classroom and not just simulated," says Van Romero, vice president of research at New Mexico Tech. "Actually, here in the town of Playas, we control everything."

In 2004, the university shelled out $5 million to buy Playas lock, stock and barrel. New Mexico Tech has been developing weapons and programs to counter suicide bombers since World war II, when Japanese kamikaze pilots targeted U.S. ships.

The targets are different today. And, says Romero, so is the training.

"When Oklahoma City occurred," he says, "we were asked 'OK, great, you help the FBI, you help the ATF, but how about the cop on the beat, and the fireman. They show up sin minutes after the bomb goes off. Can you help them?'"

Those are exactly the type of first responders for whom a five-day course in anti-terrorism is designed.

Trainer Aaron Richman says a number of nuts are scattered around to act as shrapnel.

"How hard is it to get across what it's really like, post-suicide bomb," he says. "It's extremely difficult; the real situation — nothing can replace it. But this is as close as possible to the real detonation."

In the last eight years, 40,000 police fire and emergency personnel have gone thru the program, 1,000 of them here at Playas. But this kind of training doesn't come cheap. It costs the Department of Homeland Security upwards of $20 million a year.

Mark Short of the Department of Homeland Security says the training is worth the money.

"Is the American taxpayer getting their money's worth here?" he asks. "Saving and protecting American lives is difficult to place a dollar value on. But here, the lessons that are learned will protect American lives.

The policemen training at Playas aren't worried about if the training will pay off … but when .

"We're going to be the first ones out there," says John Bertuca of the DuPage County, Ill., bomb squad, "so we're going to be the ones everyone looks to to do something."

They will — if the terror that plays out every day in Playas ever plays out for real one day.