San Jose, California
It was the dirty little bomb. Still, it took out D.C. from the estuary to the Beltway. It was a stunning blow that the American people were unprepared to accept. At 10:35am that Tuesday morning, the President was briefing the cabinet in the White House. Congress was in session working on the budget. The Supreme Court was convened to hear the case of Roscoe vs Allied Aluminum. They were all gone in an instant. It took little longer for the shock wave to travel around the world.
Ali Jaheed was sitting at breakfast with his father watching Good Morning America before going to school when the television suddenly went dead. It got their attention. When the TV came back on there was that familiar but infrequent tone of the Emergency Broadcast System set against a test pattern. “I wonder what's up, Dad?” Ali said.
His father didn’t look up from the San Francisco Chronicle. Having lost his job in the high-tech slump, he searched the want ads every morning in hopes of finding some relief from the pressure of being unemployed in San Jose. “Oh, it's probably just some malfunction. I'm sure they'll be back on soon.”
After what seemed like an eternity to Ali, a picture flickered into view. It was the face of an un made up Vice-President Phyllis Knox, disheveled and distracted, with a frightening look in her eye. It was uncharacteristic of the fire plug from Kentucky. She was usually as solid as the fort she was named after. This morning was different. She took a moment to compose herself, and then began to speak:
“Ten minutes ago, at 10:35am Eastern time, a nuclear bomb struck Washington D.C. I am in route to San Diego and am speaking to you from Air Force Two. The President is gone. The Capital is gone. As far as I know, most of the government is gone. According to the Constitution and the powers of sucession, I have taken command. I have ordered the Army, Navy, and the Air Force to cordon off the area surrounding the Capital to prevent any further harm to our citizens. I am declaring martial law and asking every governor to call out the National Guard to prevent any exploitation of the Nation's great loss.
I'm asking each and every one of you to remain calm. There is nothing we can do for the dead. It is our life and the living we must provide for. Democracy will prevail, and God willing, we will survive.”
She broke down crying. The screen went blank for a moment; and then an ashen-faced staff member, Jill Anderson, came to the camera and explained that Air Force Two was being diverted to an undisclosed location where the Vice-President would take steps to reorganize a temporary government until such time as a new one could be elected. She asked everyone to stay tuned to the media for any updates from the emergency government.
Good Morning America came back on and immediately switched to an ABC Special Report. Cameras were focused on a huge black mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke towering in the east from the lush green Virginia countryside. Nonstop commentary described a horrifying scene of people fleeing from the shock and fire of the initial moment when the Capital was bathed in that eerie yellow light before the concussion of the shock wave blew cars off the Beltway twenty miles away. Those clamoring to get away created a monumental traffic jam up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Rumors spread like wildfire. Half of New York City vacated, fearing that they would be the next target. After the initial stunning blow, many reacted in panic. They left their jobs and took their children out of school, packed up and headed out onto uncertain highways, filled with others also trying to get away. The National Guard set up checkpoints just to begin to control the traffic. Reports of price gouging were widespread, and the cities began to experience looting as fear and greed took over sensibility.
Ali and his father, Rashid, like most of America, sat transfixed at the television, misbelieving the inevitability and eagerly seeking hopeful news. It was all bad. Hazmat and rescue teams sent from all over the country were having difficulty reaching the bomb site because people fleeing were using both sides of every available highway. Only aerial teams were able to approach the danger zone, and they were restricted by heat and radiation from getting too close. The initial rescues were of badly burned people who somehow managed to leave the devastated areas by walking or driving. They were airlifted to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other trauma centers that quickly became undulated with thousands of victims.
“You know they are going to blame us.” Rashid suddenly blurted out. His Pakistani accent was especially thick at times like this. ”They think all Moslems want Jihad.”
“Oh, Dad. You've been in this country thirty years and you still are afraid that you may have to go back to Pakistan. I'm an American. There's got to be something I can do. Whoever it is that did this must be punished. I'm gonna give my friends a call and see what they plan to do.”
“Ali, you are so young and naive. You didn't have to walk three hundred miles with guns on your back. You don't know how the Hindus treated us.”
Ali tuned out and focused on what the newscaster was saying. TV crews were on the ground now; close in, filming dramatic rescues of badly burned people, risking their own lives. Ali's cell phone rang.
“Hi, Rob here. Have you seen what's been going on Ali? I'll bet the school is empty. Nobody in their right mind would go to school at a time like this--except maybe those wanks who don’t have a TV.”
Ali kept one eye on the TV as he spoke. ”Yah, Dad and I were eating breakfast, watching TV when it happened. There's no use in going to school. I am afraid to look away or I'll miss something.”
“Remember 911? After a while it all looks the same. Tell you what I'm gonna to do though--as soon as I can, I'm gonna sign up! What say? You gonna do the same?” Rob needed Ali to back him—to get his courage up.
File footage from Yucca flats showing houses with dummies being blown away was flashing on the screen. Ali hadn't thought of it. His plans were to go to college and study computer science like his father. ”I don’t know . . . Have to think about it. A lot going on right now.”
“You betcha! But what's ta lose. Whoever did this has got to be punished. I want to be right there to dish it out--give them a little taste of what they gave to us.”
“You're damn right it is!”
Ali could see “Special Report” flashing on the screen. The Vice-President was stepping to the podium to make another statement. “Gotta go . . . .” Ali hung up. When his eyes focused on the television screen he could see that it was 8:37am. It'd only been a little over an hour since this nightmare began. It seemed like hours.
A temporary news conference had been set up in a hangar in a remote corner of the San Diego where Air Force 2 was parked. Police cordoned off the entire area so that only the media could get in. After a brief introduction by Jill Anderson, Vice-President Knox stepped up to the microphone. She had regained her color, but her face was grim. She spoke:
“According to the Constitution of the United States, I have asked the Honorable Hamilton Jones, Chief Judge of the Ninth District Federal Circuit, to swear me in as the 46th President of the United States.”
Judge Jones moved in from the right, and with the assistance of Jill Anderson, quickly swore her in. That formality over, President Knox stepped to the microphone again:
“Let me assure you, the American people, that our country is still strong. We have lost a great deal. Our heart has been torn out. But we are determined and resourceful, and an able replacement is already pumping in our breast. Four Senators and eleven House members have survived. While we lost the justices of the Supreme Court, the federal judiciary system remains in place and will provide justice. The command of the Armed Services has been sorely wounded, but our forces remain strong and the most powerful in the world. I call upon them to protect us in this, our darkest hour.
The White House is gone. I mourn for the loss of my colleagues and friends. Most of all, our dear President and his family. Our prayers are with them. I cannot, my dear countrymen, leave you waiting while I mourn. I will reestablish the Executive in an undisclosed location for the time being. Eventually, we will set about building a new Capital or restore the old one, depending upon the will of the people. In the meantime, I will work closely with the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI, as well as all of the fine police forces in this, our great country, to, combined, seek out, track down, and destroy those responsible for this heinous act. Martial law will remain in force until such time that it is deemed by my advisers that we have stabilized enough to ward off anarchy. I'm asking the nation's financial institutions to close today to prevent a financial panic. And then, to open cautiously in the ensuing days when it is advisedly safe to do so. We will not allow terrorists to hold commerce hostage
The search and rescue effort is foremost on my mind. While I do not wish to endanger any of our rescue workers at this time, I’m requesting that all radiation experts lend their advice and support to the effort of saving as many lives as possible. We must go in, to the center of the city, if possible, to rescue those who might be buried in the rubble. It will take extraordinary courage and determination to do this. We must not let someone die from heat, radiation, or thirst because we did not do something to try to save them. As soon as I can, I will set up my Emergency Rescue Task Force, made up of leaders from the Red Cross, fire fighters, the National Guard, and other entities deemed essential for the rescue effort. While I know that many of you are already planning to rush to the aid of our people, I must ask that you do so with the permission and guidance of your highest officials and the Task Force. We cannot and must not stress our economy or cause loss of life because we acted hastily without a plan.
Emergency phone numbers will be set up for relatives of those lost, for those wishing to offer aid, and for those wishing to serve in the rescue effort. If we are patient, we will accomplish more in a short period of time. As I speak, emergency hospitals are being set up in Richmond, Fairfax, Baltimore, Columbia and many locations as close to the area of devastation as possible for immediate treatment of the severely wounded and burned. I'm asking all hospitals of the Eastern Seaboard to cut their staffs in half and send them to these field hospitals.
There is an immense evacuation taking place. I'm asking all Americans, regardless of your beliefs or ethnic origin, to open your homes to the evacuees until the Red Cross can set up appropriate shelters. I'm asking all curiosity seekers and those who think they need to be close to the tragedy to refrain from going there by any means of transportation. All persons who have not been authorized by the Task Force will be stopped, turned back, and detained, if necessary from a perimeter roughly fifty miles from the outer edges of the devastation. Those with proof of living within that perimeter may stay. However, if there is any concern for personal safety or the authorities order them out, they must leave. All persons should carry multiple forms of identification or risk being detained.
For those of you who would seize upon this time of trial to perform acts of crime and violence, I will impose strict curfews and authorize law enforcement and the National Guard to deal swiftly and strongly against such acts of aggression and senselessness. Be forewarned. Looters will be shot.
We have no idea who did this cowardly deed. But we will find out and they will be brought to justice. However long it takes, we will seek them out. However long it takes, we will weed them out. However long it takes, terrorism will end. God help us, it will be so. We will live in peace, tranquility, and security again some day.”
Phyllis Knox faded from the podium. There was no applause. Her assistant, George Mitropoulos, was besieged by questions from the press. He could not answer them. He said they were being recorded and would be responded to as soon as the Emergency Rescue Task Force was set up and operating. The President would be leaving immediately to the undisclosed location of the Executive Branch of the government. Likewise, the fifteen members of Congress would be meeting--also at an undisclosed location--to pass interim laws until the Governors could appoint an interim Congress.
Like most of America, Ali and his father sat transfixed by the scenes they were seeing on the screen for the rest of the day and into the night. The absolute horror of it was slow to unfold. First, they saw the traffic jams. People desperate to leave the scene of devastation. Fear of radiation caused many more to flee than expected. Caught in traffic for hours, there were angry exchanges, fights, and shots fired out as people desperately tried to drive their vehicles to safety any way they could. Personal property was of no value to those who took every opportunity to leave the road in a desperate attempt to move against the massive traffic jams. Some stopped a hundred miles away. Some kept driving. While some of these told reporters that they were headed to relatives, others were too tired and disoriented to know when to stop. Authorities had to set up roadblocks to channel frightened refugees to villages and towns where the citizens were providing temporary shelter.
Closer to D.C., the roadways and sky were a sea of flashing red lights as thousands of ambulances and air rescue units from all over the country converged on the rescue site. Thousands of burn victims were taken to the nearby trauma centers and treated. The trama ranged from minor burns like sunburn, to cases that were so bad doctors stopped treatment and offered on-the-spot euthanasia to ease suffering.
Radiation was another problem. While the burned and dying needed rescue and care, medical teams could not risk themselves radiation carried on the victims. Portable decontamination units were set up along all the evacuation routes. Car washes were enlisted in the cause. All cars and occupants fleeing the scene were asked to wash their cars and anyone walking or being carried out was asked to take a decontamination shower. Some of the burn victims screamed in pain and as they were being washed but there was no other choice.
Those going in had a bigger problem. Radiation suits were in short supply. Those that did go in went with the understanding that even though they were protected by the suits they were wearing, there was no guarantee that they would not be poisoned by radiation. A few brave reporters agreed to go in with suits on to record the rescue operation close up.
Rescue vehicles were only able to penetrate to within ten miles of the epicenter of the blast. There, the heat and radiation levels prevented anyone from leaving the protection of the vehicles. Still, cameras through the windows showed a scene as close to hell as could be imagined on earth. It was obvious through the flaming inferno that no one here survived except if they were deep underground. And if they were underground, it would be some time before any rescue could be attempted. After getting their horrific pictures, the vehicles retreated to safer ground, before they too, would be consumed.
Ali watched in awe the power of what he was seeing. Helicopters gave a much wider view. Smoke rose for miles and blackened the sky eastward over the Atlantic Ocean. Fires raged and explosions punctuated the dead stillness of the once vibrant Capital. It was a scene right out of a horror movie--only this was no movie.