Three for three: Bad decisions, response and wiring

Published3/31/2008 12:13 AM

No one should quarrel with the response by Northern Illinois University to that Valentine's Day classroom massacre.

Police, medical teams, students, teachers, administrators, counselors -- all did the right things on Feb. 14 when a former graduate student became unglued in Cole Hall, shooting 21 students, five of them fatally, and then killed himself.


But in 2008, such a coordinated reaction is to be expected. Universities have response blueprints to follow, after the numerous other campus attacks … and billions of dollars pumped into homeland security plans, personnel and equipment since 9/11.

Other than the normal "roundtable" discussions that authorities have after every major incident, the response to the tragedy at NIU doesn't need nearly as much attention as the university wants to give it.

The board of trustees plans to set up an internal panel to review the Valentine's Day attack. The panel will look at everything except the gunman and the confluence of events that put him on the lecture hall stage that day, armed to the teeth.

"We are not looking for blame here," said Northern Illinois President John Peters. "It is not an investigation."

Well, it should be an investigation. Just like the one ordered by Virginia Gov. Tim Kane the very day that a student-gunman opened fire on the Virginia Tech campus last spring.

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Laws were changed as a result of the findings by that expert panel.

But such a decision shouldn't rest on the shoulders of NIU's president. A strategy similar to Virginia's should already have been undertaken by Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, one that would examine the gunman's trail of mental troubles, gun purchases and whether others knew of his intentions or feared he was coming unhinged and did nothing.

It's a bigger problem than NIU … because the next time shots are fired in Illinois it will undoubtedly be on another campus.

Or maybe at a shopping mall, such as last Thursday's shooting attack in West Dundee. A 19-year-old man was shot in the chest and critically wounded in a department store parking lot.

The standard operating procedure after such shootings is to flood the mall with police and security guards -- as if the gunmen would return to the scene of the crime and create more mayhem.

Considering that two teenage suspects were quickly arrested, the ramped-up police presence was just a feel-good tactic for the public, as are most of the theatrics we are forced to endure at airport security checkpoints.


Perhaps the best indicator of how ho-hum we have become with these shootings in public places came from Spring Hill Mall spokeswoman Amy Prew: "Shoppers are going about their business," Prew told the Daily Herald last week. "There is a normal buzz about the mall."

Guy shot in a suburban mall parking lot, for whatever reason, and achieving a normal buzz in less than 24-hours is a good thing?

Bad wiring: You ain't seen nothing yet if you thought it was a big deal last week when American and Delta canceled hundreds of flights in Chicago and elsewhere because of jetliner electrical wiring issues.

The average commercial plane has about 150 miles of wires running from nose to tail and wingtip to wingtip. The wiring controls all the major aircraft systems that enable the plane to fly.

Those wires are metal of various gauges, encased in plastic coverings. As passenger jets age and some are being pulled out of storage in desert "graveyards," some aviation industry engineers have deep concerns about whether the wiring is too brittle and no longer reliable.

If the insulation cracks around a piece of metal wire, it could spark an onboard fire and explosion -- especially in wiring that crisscrosses fuel tanks.

A few years ago I interviewed former Pentagon engineer Ed Block, who tried to blow the whistle on the dangers of decaying airplane wiring.

Block was castigated for saying, basically, that all planes will eventually be in danger of wiring calamities and catastrophic failure as the aircraft age.

He pointed to midair fires and crashes that he thinks were already caused by old, rotting wires -- TWA Flight 800 off of New York in 1996 and Swiss Air 111 near Nova Scotia in 1998 among them.

Here's the real problem for the airlines: They can replace the seats on older aircraft, refurbish the bathrooms, change the wheel assemblies and flaps, put on new engines and repaint the fuselage.

But the wiring that snakes through jetliners is hidden in walls and can never even be inspected.

And it can't be replaced.

It's too complicated and too expensive, but it's unreasonable to do nothing. That's a bad combo at 35,000 feet.

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