Story and Photos by Tom Demerly.

Karen Mckeachie Du

Last week an American woman, Gwen Jorgensen, won the Gold Medal in the Olympic Triathlon in Rio de Janeiro. It is the first Gold Medal the U.S. has ever won in triathlon, a sport we invented.

A few days ago one of the women who is more responsible for the Olympic triathlon movement than any other single female was killed by a car while cycling on Dexter-Chelsea Road near North Fletcher in Lima Township on Friday morning, August 26, 2016.

She is Karen Mckeachie, 63, of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is (a very small part of) an enormous story of an incredible life, so I’m going to start back in 1984, at my first triathlon where I met Karen Mckeachie and Lew Kidder.

The Big 10 Triathlon in Lansing, Michigan. It’s a “Half-Ironman”, what we call a 70.3 today.

I don’t know what I’m doing, but I saw the Ironman Triathlon on ABC Wide World of Sports, thought it was cool, so here I am. Almost none of us know what we are doing yet. The sport is too young.

Except two people.

They are Karen Mckeachie and Lew Kidder.

I am in awe of Karen and Lew immediately. Lew is tall, thin and commanding. He knows every statistic, every athlete. He knows about bikes, knows how to set up a transition. He also knows Ironman champion Dave Scott, who is making a special appearance at the race today. They chat like old friends. Lew even knows Dave Scott’s dad, Verne. Lew is an attorney and businessman wired into the hierarchy of triathlon government.

Karen Mckeachie and Lew Kidder are married, and even as early as 1984 they are triathlon’s power couple. They’re from Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Midwest hub of an emerging movement called “endurance sports” that loosely includes bicycling and distance running, and this new thing- “tri-ath-alon”. We’re not even sure how to spell it yet.

In a few years Boone Lennon will invent a downhill skier position handlebar or “aerobar” called the Scott DH handlebar. Soon after an ingenious fellow named Dan Empfield will invent a wetsuit made especially for triathlon swimming. Then Empfield will design a bicycle to work with Boone Lennon’s handlebar. And a guy named Steve Hed (say “Head”) will invent a deep-rim wheel for better aerodynamics. Eventually all of them, including Karen Mckeachie, will be inducted into some version of triathlon’s Hall of Fame.

My first race is a disaster. I wind up second from last. But I am in love. In love with a sport that will take me around the world, break my heart, build me up, make me rich and break me poor, nearly kill me and then save my life. And through this conduit I will learn about triathlon, and I will learn about life- especially at first- from Karen and Lew.

Karen and Lew are remarkable people. Laser focused and white-hot driven. At the hub of everything. Constantly training, racing, advocating, organizing, traveling, starting something new, saving something old. Visiting their house is like entering the core of a nuclear reactor. So much is going on it glows with vitality and vigor.

The only things missing from their lives are limitations. There are none.

While Lew is a fascinating man, Karen is quiet- at least at first. She is trained as an engineer, wears her hair in a utilitarian bob, seems to eschew the conspicuous frivolities of gender. I will experience a massive paradigm shift about women because of Karen in about twenty years, so keep reading.

Lew and Karen start a triathlon magazine and I write for them. It’s called Triathlon Today! They start the first ever triathlon equipment mail order company, before Seton Claggett at TriSports.com and before Craig Turner at Nytro.com. The company is run, along with the magazine, from the basement of their house. Later, as both companies grow, from an office in downtown Ann Arbor.

Lew calls and wants me to visit their house off State Street in Ann Arbor across from one of the University of Michigan’s largest sports complexes. He has some new triathlon gear he wants to show me for the magazine.

Karen is downstairs. She is working at a workbench strewn with bicycle tools. There are several bikes in various states of assembly around the room. In the center is a bicycle work stand. The bike on it has a saddle that appears to be held together by tape.

“Did you crash?” I ask Karen.

“No, these saddles kill me. They aren’t made for women riding in aerobars, so I cut out the parts that hurt and made this. It works much better.” She tells me.

Mckeachie has just engineered the triathlon specific saddle. John Cobb will go on to produce it when Karen visits him for wind tunnel testing. The original concept will spin off into both ISM Adamo saddles and Cobb Cycling saddles. Today nearly all of the top fifteen men and top fifteen women at the Ironman World Championship ride some version of the saddle Mckeachie innovated in her basement with a power saw and duct tape.

Karen Mckeachie is an engineer by degree and trade. She knows tools and equipment. She is analytical and has a mindset for questioning things. She is also a pragmatist. But the early 1980’s are still a time when men work on bikes and- in some sports still- women compete at shorter distances wearing lighter colors with ribbons in their hair, or stand on the sidelines in short skirts waving pom-poms. Because they’re girls. A woman named Julie Moss has already started to shift that reality at Ironman.

Karen Mckeachie is continuing that shift.

Mckeachie shows me how she engineered her saddle, changes the freewheels on a couple bike wheels, shows me how to pack a flight case to fly a bike, then looks me in the eye, tilts her head slightly to one side- and farts. Loud. It is, as if to say, “I can design, engineer, race, wrench, and do anything I want alongside you, better in fact, because I am an engineer, an athlete, and a strong person before I am anything else.”

Years pass. I’m in the military, first full time, then part time. I start a business.

I continued to work with Lew and Karen on a number of projects. About 1996 or ‘97 they sent a girl from Livonia, Michigan into my bike shop who told me she wanted to start doing triathlons. She told me she already knew how to swim.

I noticed she wore a ring with five circles on it. “Were you in the Olympics?” I asked.

Sheila Taormina won an Olympic Gold Medal in Atlanta as a member of the 1996 U.S. women’s team in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. She didn’t know anything about bikes and wasn’t a runner, but she figured she’d try a triathlon, you know, since she was already a pretty good swimmer.

Karen Mckeachie and Lew Kidder worked extensively with Sheila from the time she started doing triathlons and for a number of years after.

Taormina went on to become an Olympic triathlete, taking sixth at the first ever Olympic triathlon in Sydney, Australia in 2000. Taormina also raced in the Olympic Triathlon in Greece in 2004, finishing 23rd after she won the ITU World Championships that same year.

Because of Karen and Lew, I got to set up Sheila’s bike for the Olympic Trials in Honolulu and traveled to Hawaii with her for the race, acting as her personal race mechanic. I did the same for her at the Olympic Trials in Dallas, Texas.

More years went by. Airliners hijacked by terrorists hit buildings in New York and Washington. A massive recession hit. A global war started. Karen and Lew continued to promote the sport by putting on events, many of them women’s only races, by hosting training sessions, by coaching and mentoring. Even by propping the triathlon federation up financially.

In 2011 I was a photographer at the U.S. National Duathlon Championships in Tucson, Arizona. I rode on the back of a camera motorcycle and shot photos in the transition area of the race.

On the first run of the duathlon I recognized Karen Mckeachie and knew she was a top contender. I found her bike in the transition area and set up to photograph her coming out of T1 to mount her bike. Then I would jump on the back of the camera motorcycle and speed out on the course to photograph her on the bike.

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Mckeachie entered T1 after the run. She was breathing fire. She transitioned in an instant, passed multiple athletes in transition, grabbed her bike and ran toward the mount line where I was standing.

She did not smile, wave, or acknowledge anything other than the urgent need to shave every second, gain an advantage, get out on the bike course and race.

In that instant my concept of women’s athletics changed forever. I was in awe. Mckeachie was a badass, charging out of the transition area with a look on her face like an 18-year old Marine running a bayonet-fighting course. Nothing would slow her; nothing would get in her way. She was a fire breathing, take-no-shit, I am serious as hell elite athlete. Reserved, diminutive, soft spoken and analytical off the bike, a driven and practiced elite competitor on the racecourse.

My image of athletics and gender shifted structurally in that instant. When I saw this photo I shot of Karen on my computer back in the office I saw a photo of one of the greatest endurance athletes in all of history. She never appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, never wore an Olympic Gold Medal around her neck- but she did collect stacks of world and national championship medals, overall race wins, age group victories and accolades and more importantly, did the heavy lifting of getting other women into the sport, and the sport into the Olympics.

I don’t know if Gwen Jorgensen knows Karen and Lew. I’m not sure Jorgensen understands the foundational role Karen along with Lew played in, first, women’s triathlon and then the Olympic triathlon.

I do know this; Karen Mckeachie has achieved immortality because of her contributions to triathlon and women’s athletics. This horrible tragedy took her life, but they did not take her legacy. Nothing ever will.

By Tom Demerly.

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Karen Mckeachie, 63, of Ann Arbor, Michigan was killed in a collision with a car while cycling on Dexter-Chelsea Road near North Fletcher in Lima Township on Friday morning, August 26, 2016.

Michigan State Police are conducting an investigation of the accident.

Karen Mckeachie was an internationally-known elite triathlete and an iconic figure in the sport.

Mckeachie was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014. In her career as a top age group triathlete across all distances and many age categories, Karen Mckeachie won six world age-group championships and 15 age-group national championships. She was a multi-time Ironman World Championship finisher.

On Friday night a relative of Karen Mckeachie memorialized her remarkable life with these highlights:

  • Inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014
  • Seven-time triathlon world champion
  • Seventeen-time triathlon national champion
  • USA Triathlon’s Overall Triathlete of the Year, 1999 (the only 40+ female to receive that honor)
  • USA Triathlon Masters Triathlete of the Year, 2000
  • Is believed to be the oldest athlete (58 years) to outright win a major triathlon, beating out all the younger athletes in the race
  • Created the first-ever women’s bike saddle
  • Former coach of Olympic triathlete Sheila Taormina
  • Won two triathlons in one weekend in 2013
  • Has run a 2:48 marathon
  • Raced in 9 Hawaii (Kona) “Ironmans”, finishing as high as 8th female overall, and four times in the Top 25
  • When she was in college, and before Title IX began to level the playing field, University of Michigan wouldn’t give her an “M” shirt to wear when she qualified for the NCAA championships. So she sewed an “M” onto her own shirt, went to the championships, and won outright. Her hand-sewn “M” shirt is now in UM’s sports hall of fame. (She had to transfer to a lower-quality agricultural college in East Lansing because, even after her victories, UM still did not support women’s athletics).

Karen spent the past 35 years hosting and managing races, building the sport well before it became mainstream. Mckeachie’s influence has directly touched nearly every triathlon in Michigan that is older than 5 years.

Karen Mckeachie was an engineer with an analytical background she employed in her approach to triathlon training and equipment. She is credited with developing the first ever female-specific triathlon bike saddle when she used a hand saw to modify an existing bike seat to be more comfortable riding in the aerodynamic position. She was also co-founder of what may have been the first ever website to sell triathlon gear online.

Mckeachie, along with her husband Lew Kidder who survives her, was a tireless supporter of the sport of triathlon, contributing to the careers of many elite triathletes, managing triathlon events and contributing at every level of the sport.

Known as a quiet, reserved person outside of the racecourse, she was a fierce competitor while racing, having endured numerous physical injuries to prevail across all race distances and age categories. Mckeachie never recognized her age as a limitation and always raced for overall success.

Along with her husband, Lew Kidder, she helped found Triathlon Today! magazine that went on to become Inside Triathlon magazine under (then) VeloNews publication.

Prior to her death Mckeachie was racing and training actively, continuing to participate in national and world championship events.

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

everyoneisnotawinner

The Olympics celebrate unity and cooperation, sport and humanity.

They also support a greatly maligned human aspiration: Winning.

Contrary to modern myth everyone is not a winner. And that is just fine. Some people are better than others at specific things. They are winners at that task. No one is a winner at everything. And therein lies one of many reasons we need unity and cooperation, but not false equity.

We’ve moved toward a society that enforces a synthetic equity for fear of offending, fear of excluding, fear of discriminating, fear of discouraging.

That’s wrong.

Offense, fear, discrimination and discouragement are all bad things, but they are all part of life. Sport is a microcosm of life- an entire life played out in the time it takes a person to swim a length, run a lap, fall off a bike. It is life, concentrated. And that is part of what makes the entire spectacle so beautiful, so powerful, so tragic and so magical. It’s life in a one-minute swim heat.

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Eyebrows went up when U.S. swimmer Lilly King made derogatory and accusing statements about Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova. Efimova has been banned two times for testing positive for performance enhancing substances. King called bullshit on Efimova, mocked her gestures, then went out and kicked her lycra-covered well-trained Russian ass in the 100-meter breaststroke.

Talk the talk. Walk the walk. King delivered. Good story. End of story.

Michael Phelps raised eyebrows by giving the stink-eye to South African swimmer Chad le Clos who beat him in the 200-meter butterfly in 2012 by only 0.05 seconds for the Gold Medal. That is only five-one hundredths of a second. No human activity takes that little time, except losing your ass, and Phelps has built a career of kicking ass. So that loss to Le Clos in 2012 was a bad day at the office for Michael Phelps. He wanted payback. Phelps settled his account with Le Clos last night by swimming 1:54:12 to Clos’ 1:55:19 in the 220-butterfly. In Olympic swimming that is a rout.

And Michael Phelps isn’t sulking anymore.

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In the Women’s road race Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten crashed heavily on a dangerous descent of the closing lap only a couple minutes from a potential Gold Medal ride. Annemiek was out-descending American breakaway companion Mara Abbott of the United States, at least for the moment. But Van Vleuten gambled, and the reason they call it gambling is because sometimes you lose. She lost. Broken vertebrae, concussion, dashed medal hopes. Tragedy. But she is recovering, and she will race again. The U.S. rider chasing her, she lost too, only meters from the line. Ironically, Mara Abbott lost to one of Anniemiek van Vleuten’s teammates.

So one thing we’ve learned so far in this Olympics is there are very definitely winners, and losers. Not everyone is a winner. There has to be losers to perform in valiant, tragic contrast to winners. And there is nothing wrong with that.

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

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November 9, 2016:

In one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in U.S. history, news outlets report that Donald Trump has won the 2016 presidential election.

How did a non-politician with a sensational and even salacious history win the top elected spot in U.S. government?

A forensic examination of U.S. political and social trends over the previous decade predicted a Trump win, however unlikely the idea sounded when his candidacy was proposed two years ago.

“You’re Fired!” Americans Were Tired of Politics- and Politicians.

A pervasive argument in the last decade has been “how much government is too much government?”

Trump’s campaign was built on rhetoric (if not reality) of less government. This follows two administrations that expanded government in the U.S. A swing in the opposite direction was predictable.

Americans Are Afraid.

A widening gap between upper and lower classes, stagnant wages, the looming threat of domestic and foreign terrorism and structural changes in the European economic environment have left Americans with a sense of uneasiness and fear.

The current political environment, both domestically and internationally, is extremely nuanced and complex. While Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was undoubtedly more experienced at both understanding and navigating this environment Americans were attracted to a more guttural approach.

Can Trump deliver on promises of enhanced security, refined immigration and more conspicuously decisive foreign policy? Only time will tell.

Americans Had Difficulty Visualizing Globalization.

Most Americans can’t find Syria, Libya, Iran or even China on an unmarked world map. They perceive foreign trade and increasing international commerce as a threat to the U.S. economy and to their personal economies. Trump’s isolationist doctrine rang true with them.

Few Americans are students of history, and the ominous portend of Trump’s isolationist doctrine is that, in previous eras of U.S. isolationism, global conflict has followed. There is an argument that increased global connectivity during the last decade will subvert another conventional global conflict and instead trend toward increasing insurgencies as opposed to a conventional war. Trump leveraged a patriotic, “America First” doctrine that was comforting to middle America.

Trump Is a Great Salesman, And Americans Were Susceptible to a Great Pitch.

The effusive lethargy of American government in everything from the postal service to the judicial branch and the war on terror has made Americans increasingly impulsive and impatient. They were susceptible to Trump’s pointed sales presentation on being President. Trump was the perceived “one click” button for change.

It’s unlikely Trump will be able to execute on much of his “Being politically correct takes too much time. We have too much to get done!” doctrine, but it sounded good, and it’s what people wanted to hear. Trump understood his market and tailored his political product to that consumership. It got him the Whitehouse. Now we’ll see what he does with it.

Clinton Did Not Play Well in Media.

Having lost the Democratic nomination in one election already in 2008 Americans perceived her as a perpetual “first place loser”.

Interestingly, Clinton lost the nomination in 2008 to former President Barack Obama when he began to pitch a doctrine of “change” as opposed to Clinton’s continued emphasis on her political experience. Obama’s “change” narrative won then in a similar way to how Trump’s message of political change won this election.

While both candidates had a wake of scandal in their pasts, Americans seemed accepting of their respective violations but ultimately forgave a brash Trump for either owning his transgressions unapologetically or denying them categorically, but never waffling. Clinton’s responses to Benghazi and the classified e-mail question were measured and political. This did not play well with voters who quickly sensed the “Potomac Two-Step” from Clinton. And while Americans have forgiven the Clintons for dishonesty in office before, they have grown cynical now. America was ready to overlook Trump’s transgressions from legality in the name of business.

Clinton played the gender card, leveraging an opportunity to become “Our first female President”. This had some appeal but ultimately was sexist in and of itself, suggesting gender- male or female- ought be a determinant for political office. This shined on one side, and was abrasive on the other. Stacked against the other factors it was one more minor straw that ultimately broke the back of Clinton’s campaign. Gender was never an issue for Trump because, well, like it or not, he’s the gender all U.S. Presidents have been and voters were comfortable with that.

Record Voter Turnout.

The silent American voter roared in this election, across the plains and into the swing states. People who did not vote before voted this time, and most voted for the perceived change that Donald Trump pitched.

In a haunting similarity to the coup in Egypt and election unrest in several Middle Eastern countries the electoral college, who controls the outcome of the election, was put on notice by the popular vote; follow the popular vote or face the consequences of an increasingly divided nation.

Americans Are Broke and Don’t Want Higher Taxes. 

Incomes have not kept pace with expenses for most middle class Americans. Few Americans understand the true extent of their tax burden. But Americans do understand they are working more for less, or for the same, and that many things either cost more or there are more expenses than a decade ago. There is an axiom that people vote their pocket books, and Trump ran on a doctrine of lower taxes, while Clinton’s doctrine was heavy on social programs that would drive tax burden even higher. America didn’t want that, so they voted Trump.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

terrorthreatTDF

The 14 July Bastille Day terror attack in Nice, France is the third major terror attack in France during the last year according to globalsecurity.org, an intelligence and security think-tank.

Media reports 84 killed and many more wounded.

In addition to Bastille Day July is also a prominent month in the French holiday season because of the Tour de France bicycle race, a month-long international event contested on open roads in daily “stages” that usually cover over 100 miles. Professional bicycle racers from around the world compete in “The Tour” which is the most famous event in bicycling.

The Tour de France is a unique spectator event because of its geographic scale and almost entirely unrestricted access to the sporting venue, the open roads of France. These features make the event impossible to secure from terrorist threats such as roadside bombs, suicide bombers, car/truck bombs, air attack, sniper attack, mass shooting and other threats.

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In February 2016 bicycle racing expert and journalist Caley Fretz quoted researcher David Murakami Wood for publication Velo-News, “I don’t mean to be too alarmist, but the Tour de France is almost impossible to secure.”

The Tour de France race organization, a company named ASO, does not provide overall security for the event. The security role is performed largely by a mix of French national law enforcement, regional police forces, local law enforcement and even some volunteers on the lowest level.

A special national police unit, the Gendarmerie national, is the primary security asset for the Tour de France. This unit includes a special motorbike contingent called the Republican Guard or Garde républicaine.

The primary role of the Republican Guard motorbike units is protection of the riders from spectators and control of external traffic.

A French Gendarme restrains a fan during stage 19 of the 2015 Tour de France from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Troussuire on July 24, 2015 in La Toussuire, France.

A French Gendarme restrains a fan during stage 19 of the 2015 Tour de France from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Troussuire on July 24, 2015 in La Toussuire, France.

The bicycle racers in the Tour de France are accompanied by several hundred support and marketing motor vehicles that drive slowly in front of and behind the bicycle racers in a long, slowly moving procession. This large group is divided into three sub-groups; the publicity caravan that precedes the race, the race peloton or group of bicycle racers, often segmented into smaller groups as riders attempt to accelerate away from the main group in smaller sub “breakaway” groups- this group also includes press motorcycles, cars belonging to officials and the Republican Guard security motorcycles- and finally a trailing support caravan of cars belonging to the bicycle racing teams.

The race itself moves along the route with unrestricted access to the athletes from the sides and above the riders. This makes them vulnerable to both accidental and intentional collisions with spectators. Both have happened on a regular basis in the Tour de France.

It is the threat of unrestricted access to competitors that makes the security challenge at the Tour de France unique. This is combined with the high media profile, including live television and Internet coverage of the event. These factors make the event an optimal target for extremists and terrorist attacks.

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Given the escalation of terrorist style attacks in France and southern Europe, an uncontrolled influx of foreign national refugees that could conceal trained insurgents or lone wolf insurgents and the high media profile of the Tour de France in a dynamic and unsecured setting, it is almost inevitable that these factors converge in some type of willful, injurious act. This could include a mass-casualty event with both spectators and competitors.

Effective countermeasures to reduce the likelihood of a terrorist attack on the Tour de France competitors and spectators include increased aerial surveillance of the route via remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) and helicopter, fixed wing surveillance aircraft equipped with sensors to detect unusual materials and activity.

Interestingly, race officials have begun using FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) viewers to inspect bicycles that have been equipped with miniature electric motors that may illegally assist in propelling the competitors’ bikes. The detection for this “mechanical doping” could also be employed by security personnel to find abnormal thermal activity from radioactive devices and other threats.

However, these proposed route surveillance techniques are only for threat detection. Threat eradication upon detection is even more difficult given the proximity of spectators and competitors. If a terrorist threat were detected, acting against the threat would result in the inevitable disruption of the event. Any armed response also presents the challenge of avoiding peripheral casualties in a dense spectator setting.

The primary countermeasure to terrorist attacks on the Tour de France is prevention. Thankfully for the Tour de France most attacks in France have been located in close proximity to immigrant populations. The Tour de France route has been in more rural settings so far.

Foreign correspondent for The New Yorker George Packer wrote, “France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation. The cités and their occupants are the subject of anxious and angry discussion in France.” It is from and around these immediate areas where most of France’s immediate terrorist threat emanates based on an examination of previous attacks.

In conclusion, the inability to provide increased route security without compromising the traditional format of the Tour de France set against the backdrop of a rising frequency of terrorist activity within French borders presents an ominous portend; that a terrorist attack at the Tour de France in the near future is almost a statistical inevitability.

All Photos and Story By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

SWAT10

The day before the tragic Dallas police shooting on Thursday, July 7, 2016, where five policemen were killed and nine other persons injured, I was invited to embed with a Dearborn Police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) training operation by SWAT Team officer Sergeant [name withheld for operational security].

I did not know the techniques employed by Dearborn Police SWAT would be showcased in international headlines 24 hours later in Dallas.

The Dearborn Police simulation a day before the Dallas shootings was hauntingly similar. What is it like to be a Police SWAT Team operator entering a building with a deadly shooter barricaded inside? Come inside a SWAT team operation and find out…

0830 HRS. Wednesday, 6 July, 2016: Joint Dearborn Police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team, FBI, U.S. Army Training Operation; Ford Research and Innovation Building (RIC), Village Road, Dearborn, Michigan.

John David Smith is dangerous.

Anxiety, depression, paranoia and substance abuse. Coworkers reported his angry outbursts to managers. They counseled him, offering help on three occasions. Today he must be separated from the company.

Smith knows this, and he is irate. He puts a hunting shotgun and a homemade pipe bomb in a garment bag and drives to work.

0843 HRS. Wednesday, 6 July 2016: SWAT Training Simulation; Ford Research and Innovation Building (RIC), Room 2155.

The Ford Research and Innovation Building is where vehicles of the next decade are engineered today. PhD engineers keep Ford Motor Company at the top of market share with innovation for 2020 and beyond.

The Ford RIC building is a modern facility in the center of a large complex across from The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village and next to the luxurious Dearborn Inn. It is a safe place to work, with OSHA compliant safety placards and employees certified in safe work practices. A massive decade-long rebuilding of the complex was announced earlier this year. This is one of few buildings modern enough to remain as building the new complex begins.

Workers in Room 2155 see John Smith storming toward their office. He is bent over at the waist; head down, carrying a stiff garment bag. Smith has always been standoffish, but staff is trained to engage with dissatisfied employees and make conversation to lighten the atmosphere.

Smith responds by pulling a pump action shotgun from his garment bag and shooting them.

A mass shooting from a mentally disturbed assailant has begun at the Ford RIC complex.

0851 HRS. Wednesday, 6 July, 2016: SWAT Training Simulation; South Parking Lot, Ford Research and Innovation Building (RIC).

 I am embedded with the Dearborn Police Special Operations, Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Unit. I will move as part of the team, “stacked up” in the line with their rescue and assault element. The special police officers carry advanced first aid equipment, breaching and rescue gear, bulletproof shields, surveillance equipment, and an array of cell phones and tactical radios. They are also armed with M4 rifles with holographic sights, handguns, smoke, tear gas and stun grenades.

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In the training scenario an explosion of 911 calls arrives at Dearborn Police Dispatch miles away on Michigan Avenue in east Dearborn.

“Someone is shooting!” “We hear screaming.” “It sounds like bookshelves fell over and people are running up the hallway.” There is no clear picture.

Through the confusion dispatch officers trained to make order of chaos alert the SWAT team. Regular officers and Ford Security have cordoned off the building with an expedient security perimeter. SWAT positions their vehicles inside the secure perimeter at a concealed location in the south parking lot. The team is gearing up and getting their briefing. It only takes minutes.

By most comparative metrics Dearborn has one of the best law enforcement units in the United States. The department is modern and practices advanced training around the U.S. and the world. Its Special Operations SWAT Team is made up of officers with diverse backgrounds and extensive training, most with military experience, some with combat tours. But this is a civilian setting, vastly different- and more complex- than a battlefield.

The SWAT team leader is one of the older operators. His name is withheld here for security reasons. With his team in a tight circle around him the team leader briefs his men in calm tones:

“One shooter. Our objective is to get to him as fast as possible and neutralize the threat.” He shares the intelligence gathered from 911 calls, Ford Security and from cell phone communications with employees still inside the building being evacuated.

This is a near worst-case scenario: a shooter inside a massive building a city block in size. It’s an ant-maze of cubicles, engineering spaces, workshops, laboratories and vehicle service bays. There are flammable chemicals, explosive gases and high vantage points. Hundreds of places for a gunman to take hostages and barricade himself for a standoff that could end in the loss of innocent lives. The shooter can move with impunity and has demonstrated that he is willing to kill.

While hundreds of people are running out of the building, these men in black uniforms with Spartan patches on their body armor are running in.

We quietly cross an open zone behind ballistic shields and make entry. Fire alarms are blaring. The emergency exits are flung open by escaping employees. It is impossible to communicate above the din.

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The team enters against a rushing tide of fleeing, panicked employees. They jam up in an emergency exit. The SWAT operators calmly establish order and clear the evacuees to open the exit. They do it without a word, quickly searching the evacuees and signaling them to raise their hands. The shooter could be concealed among them. Fast action by the team insures he is not. Police outside secure the evacuees and move them to a safe assembly point.

Once inside the team separates into two elements without a word. They are each lined up, or “stacked” behind a thick bullet-resistant shield wielded by point men. If they come around a corner and find the shooter, the operator holding the ballistic shield will stop the incoming bullets at point-blank range while his teammates neutralize the target.

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We split the team. One assault element moves to an area where there may be hostages. They operate on sketchy intelligence gleaned from 911 calls that keep coming in, keep changing. The second element, the element I am with, moves immediately to the top floor. We begin a top-down clearing of the building, room by room, in case the first team cannot locate the shooter.

The fire alarm stops blaring. It falls deathly silent in the building. And it is getting hot. The team’s intelligence support unit operating in a large black van outside the building has disabled phones, Internet and air-conditioning. It is critical the suspect shooter does not have access to media. He could use it to watch live video about police response.

First problem: Research equipment in the building is interfering with the team’s tactical radios. The team leader commandeers the radios from Ford Security that are still working. They do a communications check on cell phones and radios. Within seconds new communications are improvised and tested. Problem solved. Forty seconds.

We are sweating now. I carry three heavy cameras and some extra equipment and wear a similar uniform as the SWAT operators. They carry 6-pound rifles, wear heavy body armor, and have on large backpacks with first aid gear, crowbars and door breaching tools. Each man has at least 40 pounds of gear on his back in addition to his ballistic helmet and eye protection. They wear special lightweight tactical boots that make no noise on the floors as they move and provide traction on wet floors. Each one wears hard-shell kneepads in case they must kneel or dive to the prone position.

I’ve done Ironman triathlons and can barely keep up with the team on the stairs with only half their load. These men are in superb condition. When we reach the top of the stairs the only sound is my breathing.

Element 1, the team moving to the possible assailant location, has located an “IED”, an improvised explosive device. A bomb. The U.S. Army and other law enforcement/intelligence units are here for the exercise to provide support and to learn from the operation. I am not allowed to photograph the techniques used to disable the bomb.

In only minutes the EOD team announces “clear”. The bomb is disarmed. There are two (simulated) casualties. SWAT operators use marking pens to write a letter on the casualties’ hands coding their condition for triage by EMT’s once the building is safe.

Our team silently rounds another corner in the systematic sweep of endless corridors.

There is carnage.

The floor is slick with (simulated) blood. There are… 10, 12… 14 casualties down in the hallway. Some dead. Some wounded. Some dying. Some screaming.

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It has gone from a hostage situation to a mass shooting, and a small tactical team in a huge building with limited emergency medical capability must make an instant, and agonizing decision: stop and render aid to victims or continue the search for the shooter- who may be creating more victims elsewhere in the building at this moment.

This is a test. A test of the team’s training in decision-making and prioritization. Like most decisions made under extreme circumstances there is no perfect outcome, only a “least bad” choice. Training and mission dictate that choice, and it is made instantly and without hesitation.

The team leader radios the first element. They move to link-up with our team in under two minutes. Instead of briefing the first team members when they arrive, which would take valuable seconds, the team leader briefs them over the radio while en route to our position in the casualty hallway. Seconds are everything.

Wounded people see us. They are screaming for help now. They may be rigged with explosives, one may be the shooter, the shooter may be in any of the doorways emptying into the hallway.

This is a kill zone filled with casualties and the team must manage the conflicting priorities of saving lives and avoiding becoming another victim. The first rule of rescuers: don’t create new victims.

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We split again, assault element sweeping to the front of the hallway, our medic moving behind us while the assaulters secure the hallway in front of us. None of the victims are rigged with explosives. None of our victims match the description of the shooter. In seconds the team has swept an adjacent office, secured it, checked the casualties for explosives and weapons and begun treating them. Regular Dearborn Police are pressed into service to help evacuate the wounded. Several victims are dead. We leave them behind. There is a (simulated) bloody bandage stuck to my boot.

After the shock of seeing shooting victims it’s hard to get back into stealth mode. It’s hard to calm my breathing. I look at the operators around me; their faces are neutral with focus.

We enter a meeting room. One operator sweeps left, one right, without a word, skirting the walls of the room with their M4 rifles in the ready position, weapon moving as one with their eyes. They avoid the fatal “funnel” inside the doorway where a shotgun blast from the shooter could cut the team down.

I’m momentarily puzzled when one man scans above us for disturbed ceiling tiles. The other checks a large waste container. The shooter could be anywhere- hiding in trash, concealed in the drop ceiling.

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Top floor. We have cleared the entire upper building. The shooter has moved and intelligence suggests there may be hostages since the count of employees rescued, the wounded in the hallway and the number of people who are supposed to be in the building does not match.

Intelligence and training suggest the shooter has moved down to a place where he can secure his hostages and remain defensive. It is rapidly evolving to a standoff hostage situation.

That situation must be avoided.

From the top floor both elements move quietly and quickly to the bottom floor engineering spaces. In total with have covered more than a mile of hallways and stairs. The Ford Security workers show signs of stress, their uniforms soaked through with sweat. I could use water. The building continues to get hotter.

The lower floors are not office cubicles. They are shop spaces and laboratories. Hundreds of places to hide. Flammable chemicals. Gasoline. We enter a large garage area with shiny, new F150 pick-ups hooked to test equipment. The team leader looks in the cab of each truck. Another team member checks the bed of the truck.

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There is a voice. Shouting.

At the end of the garage, through a high, clear garage door we make contact with the shooter. It’s the first time we’ve seen him. He is a big man, face contorted in a mix of anger and fear. It occurs to me that the role player simulating a deranged mass shooter must have experience with real shooters like this. His performance is convincing. There are several members of the simulation team I am not allowed to photograph for security reasons. He is one.

The team forms up behind their ballistic shields. They remain quiet. The shooter is shouting something, muffled by the clear garage door that separates us. One team member, our sniper, speaks quietly:

“I have a shot”.

Our team leader must make a decision: Let our sniper take the shot or advance closer in an attempt to assault the garage where the shooter is, potentially apprehending him alive and securing the hostages.

“Move up.” The team leader directs.

We advance along the wall out of sight of the shooter.

There is no hesitation. A concussion grenade cracks blinding light. The team pours into the room, flowing along the walls, weapons tracking the shooter who is now stunned by the deafening noise of the flash-bang grenade. His next flinch decides his fate, and it is a fatal one. He begins to raise his shotgun.

Two shots. Center mass. It is over.

I’m soaked in sweat, my hair is wet. My back hurts from the tension. The team begins an immediate, systematic search of the hostages. There could be an accomplice. It is too soon for “Stockholm Syndrome”, a psychological phenomenon when hostages empathize- and even defend- their assailant. There is an additional search for explosive devices.

More than anything else the team demonstrated their training enabled them to keep the momentum of their search high enough to end the standoff quickly. There are no easy choices when a life may be taken, and that is weighed against innocent lives being saved. The weight of that decision balances on a delicate fulcrum played out in the court of public opinion and the media days, weeks and months after a real incident takes place.

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Drenched in sweat and looking for a cold drink I set down my cameras and loosen my boots. The operators converse in measured tones, attentively critiquing the exercise. The outcome of this exercise will be evaluated for months and even years as a way to assess and modify doctrine against evolving threats. If the situation that happened in Texas ever comes to Dearborn our own SWAT Team is more than ready; they are trained, proficient and experienced in meeting the challenge optimally.


tomdemerlyembedded

 

Writer/photojournalist Tom Demerly is a former Army Long Range Surveillance team member and has written for numerous military, aviation and specialty publications while traveling to all seven continents, including Antarctica. He is from Dearborn, Michigan.