Lessons from a mass-murder: How to prepare for the worst

One off-duty officer was the first to arrive on scene after Anders Breivik perpetrated the first of two phases of an attack that was the worst attack in Norway since World War II

You’re on vacation with your family in an unfamiliar city without emergency equipment at your disposal when a powerful car bomb is triggered by a domestic terrorist less than 500 feet away. 

How would you respond?

Chief Inspector Knut Grini, a part-time SWAT operator with Norway’s National Police, has faced that question firsthand. 

First on Scene in Oslo
At a law enforcement-only presentation in Chicago recently, he shared what he did — and what he wishes he had done — two years ago when a right-wing fanatic with grievances against the government detonated a VW van loaded with fertilizer and fuel oil outside a multistory building housing the prime minister’s office in Oslo. 

Eight people were killed, 260 injured. From there, the perpetrator, Anders Breivik, dressed as a cop, went to an island summer camp and slaughtered 69 young people and injured at least 110 more with a mini-14. 

It was the worst attack Norway had experienced since World War II.

On holiday, Grini, his wife, and their two daughters were heading for their car after a shopping jaunt near the government complex when the bomb went off. He remembers “a lot of dust” from the blast getting in his wife’s eyes. 

He recalls, “We looked at each other and said, ‘F___! The s___ just reached Norway.’ ”

Grini told his wife, “Get the kids, get in a taxi, and get out of here.” 

Then, with no gun — police in Norway cannot be armed even on duty without special permission — he headed around a corner and down the street toward an enormous crater left by the bomb and toward buildings spewing flames and smoke.

He would be the first responding officer to the scene. Others followed within two minutes.

Second Guessing Afterward
As first to arrive, you may need to be more a medical responder than a law enforcer, Grini says. As he moved among the injured, he wished he had carried a trauma kit in his car, including tourniquets and blood-stopping agents, even when off duty. 

When he came upon an injured woman who had no pulse, he wishes now he had yelled out to the crowd beginning to form to see if anyone knew CPR so they could attempt to resuscitate her while he moved on to others who needed help.

But with his quick, informal triage of those downed around him, he was able to direct the first-arriving ambulance crew to those who seemed in the most dire condition. These included a severely injured man with a mangled foot and a punctured chest on whom Grini applied a makeshift tourniquet to slow the bleeding and used a scrap of plastic to seal the sucking chest wound. 

He also stopped a public bus that approached the area and directed the driver to take on less-injured victims for transport to medical facilities so ambulances would be free to serve the more critically harmed.

Putting the Looky-loos to Work
Grini found himself enraged at the ghoulishness of onlookers with cameras, some of whom pushed in to get close ups of bleeding faces and bodies. 

Then it occurred to him that terrorist collaborators might be in the crowd photographically documenting the damage for bragging rights. 

“I saw someone with a big camera and asked him to take pictures of everyone who was taking pictures, thinking this might be useful evidence later on, perhaps even helping to identify a suspect,” he explains.

Search and Rescue
As local officers arrived and took over the policing duties, Grini volunteered to aid in search and rescue. He had no hard hat, a necessity for working in the stricken buildings, but as a substitute he grabbed a spare helmet off of a fire truck and also took a pry bar. “You need to improvise at a scene like that,” he says.

Searching for victims, he did some things he later considered “strange.” He entered one office where he found a coffee pot turned on. “The place was completely wrecked,” he says, “but I took time to turn that pot off. It didn’t make sense when I thought about it later.”

What did make sense was something that can easily get overlooked in the excitement and stress of an urgent and chaotic situation. “You need to stay hydrated,” he says. “Every time I saw a faucet, I took a drink.”

Can’t Happen Here
Sharing the presentation with Grini was a National Police colleague, Inspector Geir Rye, a member of the agency’s elite, full-time HRT cadre based in Oslo. 

Rye, who was on vacation at home when the bomb went off, was briefly at that scene. Then he was among the handful of tactical officers carried by the first boat to reach the island where Breivik was still at large after more than an hour of ruthless killing. 

After 9/11, members of the Norwegian response team and other officers “tried to get more training,” Rye says, but “the bosses’ attitude was, ‘It’ll never happen in Norway.’ We hoped the bosses were right and we were wrong, but the Breivik attack proved we were right.”

When HRT operators reached the mainland departure point for the island, after a 45-minute drive from Oslo, local officers were standing around waiting for them to arrive rather than initiating action. More precious time was wasted in search of a boat. When one was found it was a small, red, inflatable Zodiac, incapable of carrying many men or much gear.

“The boat almost sank with just a few of us,” Rye says. “Water was rising up our legs. It was a very slow approach and we could hear shots being fired on the island, kids screaming.”

Once they landed, officers confronted unbelievable carnage, Rye told the audience. He showed classified photographs of piles of young bodies that had been mercilessly gunned down by the attacker. 

If the response time had been shortened even by 15 minutes, he said, it’s possible that 15 lives could have been saved. 

Yet despite their shortcomings, there was much that responders did right once their boots touched ground on the island; many lives were saved, and the killer was captured.

The red Zodiac, widely pictured in the media, “became the symbol of our failures that day,” Rye says. “But was it failure or was it police officers trying to do their best with what they had to work with?”

“Prepare,” Grini said in closing. “You never know what is going to hit you. Hope for the best, but be ready for the worst.” 

He quoted a U.S. Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

This program was sponsored by the Illinois Tactical Officers Assn., Cook County (Ill.) Dept. of Homeland Security, and the North East (Ill.) Multi-Regional Training Unit. 

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