A half dozen USS Gonzalez sailors had just finished connecting power cables to the destroyer and were back on board when the man in a green camouflage jacket seized his chance.
He raced past where they’d been working and up the gangway of the nearby hospital ship, USNS Comfort, to grab one of its merchant marine crewmen.
There were shouts; a knife flashed.
“Exercise, exercise, exercise,” someone just inside the Comfort’s big portside door shouted. “Hostage situation.”
That shout kicked off one of the hundreds of drills the Navy ran this week at all its continental U.S. installations for its annual Citadel Shield-Solid Curtain exercise.
Two minutes later, as the Comfort’s loudspeaker echoed that alert, the “terrorist” — a Comfort crewman — still holding the hostage with an arm across the victim’s chest, glanced toward the end of the pier as a siren grew louder.
Soon after, two U.S. Navy police cruisers, blue and red lights flashing, were at Pier 1’s yellow-painted steel gate.
One of the responding officers, Petty Officer 2nd Class John Cason, spotted the Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent in her dark blue “Federal Agent” jersey.
They walked together down the pier, along with a police captain and training observer, with Cason keeping his rifle barrel pointed down in the two-handed ready-carry position.
There was no need to point it at the terrorist, he explained.
“I was feeding off the energy there,” he said, afterward. “I saw the NCIS agent looking like the situation was under control.”
In a hostage situation, the prime mission is sometimes to keep things calm, so a trained negotiator — the NCIS agent here — can go to work.
Cason wasn’t expecting any drill when he reported for duty Wednesday and started his regular patrol. He wasn’t sure what he’d find at the Comfort when he arrived.
Some of the annual drills are tabletop exercises. Others are exercises involving the small boat patrols that respond to threats. Earlier this week, Navy security officers drilled on response to a bomb threat.
“The more we drill as a team the more prepared we are to respond to any threat that we may encounter,” said Capt. Vince Baker, Naval Station Norfolk’s commanding officer.
The key points of Cason’s drill were to secure the pier — you don’t want bystanders around when a hostage-taker is threatening violence — and to check in with NCIS or another federal agent trained in hostage negotiations. Cason’s job, when there aren’t gun shots being fired or any other immediate visible threat of deadly attack, is to keep the hostage negotiator safe and the general situation calm.
But he was ready to run and engage if he heard shots — run towards the danger, that is.
“I’ve trained on this,” Cason said, “but every situation is different.”
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