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Russian Theatre Debacle : BZ Gas?
October 28, 2002 9:38 AM   Subscribe

Russian Theatre Debacle : BZ Gas? BZ Gas.. your friendly 'non lethal' incapacitator. Originally designed for military use, (" Just blow their minds, move in, and take over") they gave it to 2800 soldiers at Edgewood before the CIA got hold of it. Due to shifting wind patterns, BZ's tendency to trigger maniacal behavior, and the difficulties of controlling the amount of BZ absorbed during combat undermined its usefulness as a nonlethal incapacitant. An overdose of BZ could be fatal - and those tests had been concluded on physically fit army troops. This little puppy is simple to produce , and shows up in films, the Bosnian Serbian Army and also South Africa. Oh yeah - some people call it a warfare agent , others call it a Calmative agent... ( tell that to the relatives of 115+ russians). People disagree whether its short term effects are anything from 6 hrs or 2 weeks and long-term damage is still unknown.. Lovely stuff.
posted by HeadSessions (47 comments total)

 
"Debacle"? How many people did they successfully rescue?

I know many people think they should have put some mild soporific in the air to knock 'em out, but they chose what they did for a reason -- it had to work FAST. By the time the terrorists realized what was happning and figured out how to react, they needed to be unconscious. There were suicide bombers sitting among the hostages, waiting for an excuse to blow themselves up.

A dainty approach would have resulted in significantly more lives lost. Giving in to their demands would have encouraged future hostage-taking. They had to knock everyone on their behinds asap, then storm the place and take everyone out, rescuing as many hostages as possible. They did so.

It's a shame that they had to use a strong chemical, and I'm disappointed and frustrated that so many of the hostages and they're families were affected as they were.

But the Russians were damned if they did, damned if they didn't. They figured out a plan that would hopefully result in as few casualties as possible, and they went through with it. It didn't go as well as they hoped, but it got the job done.
posted by oissubke at 9:46 AM on October 28, 2002


Surely pumping a deliariant into a chamber full of hungry, fanatic human bombs might up the ante just a little?

A huge risk to take and certainly not worth the one-in-four (or thereabouts) risk.
posted by HeadSessions at 9:54 AM on October 28, 2002


I know think of this word, Raid when I hear about this now.

First they reported that an unnumbered of hostages were killed by gunshots, then they reported one woman died trying to escape. So in the end just one died from a gunshot, is this right?
posted by thomcatspike at 9:57 AM on October 28, 2002


whoops, now, not know........
posted by thomcatspike at 9:58 AM on October 28, 2002


I heard 2 people died all in all from gunshots.

New Scientist link sent by a friend has more on this , and reckons its a BZ derivative. Either way its a very poor choice of agent.

I'm sure someone will want to say that Putin deserves to be on the axis-of-evil list for gassing his own people a la Sadam but its not that kind of deal.
posted by HeadSessions at 10:03 AM on October 28, 2002


A huge risk to take and certainly not worth the one-in-four (or thereabouts) risk.

I don't know, to be honest I wasn't expecting any of the hostages to make it out of the situation alive. While in hindsight it didn't seem to work out all that well, it probably worked out better than if they just stormed the place with troops (I doubt they would have given in to terrorist demands.)
posted by stifford at 10:10 AM on October 28, 2002


Very informative post, HeadSessions. Thanks.
posted by BinGregory at 10:18 AM on October 28, 2002


Sorry all, I must clarify. The end does kind of justify the means. That 405 people still remain hospitalised is better than 700 dead. That the terrorists lost is a good thing. That the gas paralyzes breathingcardiac and liver functions, is ok too in comparison to the incalculably stupid risk of giving superhalucinogens to unstable individuals with their hands on the detonators. They could have chosen a better agent.
posted by HeadSessions at 10:23 AM on October 28, 2002


Re: BZ. Slightly off topic, but I enjoyed the film 'Jacob's Ladder.' Will not say any more.µ
posted by carter at 10:32 AM on October 28, 2002


The Moscow Times interviews during the aftermath with the hospital staffers seems to suggest that an anesthesia was used, vice a hallucinogen.
Link
posted by blogRot at 10:34 AM on October 28, 2002


BZ doesn't make sense to me... this is almost certainly a different gas, since it knocked people out so quickly. New Scientist link notwithstanding, I'd bet on an anaesthetic (like ketamine, even) doped with some other agent to speed absorption.
posted by ptermit at 10:39 AM on October 28, 2002


Okay, let me see I've got this straight: The Russian special forces pump the gas into the theatre in order to quickly disable the terrorists and save the hostages. Since the distribution of the gas, and the gas itself, cannot distinguish between terrorist and victim, all are affected somewhat evenly -- with general trends like the young, the small, the elderly or those with compromised respiratory systems affected more severely.

Fine so far.

But since the Russian special forces have said the terrorists died from the effects of the gas, therefore hostages, too, were at risk of dying from the gas, as the fate of 115+ indicates. The authorities knew all this before they started pumping the gas through the vents.

To state this was the best strategy under the (quite horrific) circumstances, wouldn't all y'all agree it might have been best for the Special Forces to have told the paramedics who responded to the gas what kind of gas had been used, or at the very least, provide an antidote?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:44 AM on October 28, 2002


Helllloooo Monday Morning Quarterbacks!!!!

I had to wonder where were the evacuation and medical services. We've all seen the pics of troops literally lugging the hostages out by hand, which could have contributed to more deaths.

Did the special forces have a reason to do it this way? Maybe.

Should they have waited until the deadline to see if the rebels would actually start executing hostages? Maybe.

Was the gas the wrong one to use? Maybe.

I think the bottom line is that none of us were there, so speculate all you like, but that's really all it is.

As terrorism evolves, new situations always emerge and you cant prepare for everything. The most valuable thing will be to learn from this and develop new techniques that will result in less casualties. It is awful that so many people died. Given the number of terrorists and amount of ordinance present, it could have been much, much worse.
posted by CoolHandPuke at 10:44 AM on October 28, 2002


Wait a minute. Did anyone else read that the gas killed 116 hostages?

Surely this wasn't part of the calculated risk. Something must have gone wrong.
posted by Pinwheel at 10:45 AM on October 28, 2002


I think that the big complaint is about the actions that immediately followed the raid. Most people agree that something had to be done... whether the gas was appropriate, who knows?

The problem is -- when people started streaming into the hospital, the russian government refused to reveal the contents of the gas to the attending physicians. They said -- and perhaps rightly -- that they didn't want to say what it was in case they had to do it again. Certainly, they don't want the terrorists to have an antidote ready if this situation cropped up again.
posted by ph00dz at 10:55 AM on October 28, 2002


I read somewhere (curses I can't find that link again) that some of the hostages drowned in their own puke and/or asphyxiated from the displacement of oxygen by the gas, not directly as an effect of the gas. The special forces knocked out the windows in efforts to restore a breathable atmosphere. (One officer said he lost two of his own to the gas).
The terrorist were executed - not killed by the gas.
posted by blogRot at 10:57 AM on October 28, 2002


The loss of so many civilians in this terrorist act is appalling... but it could have very easily been worse. The terrorists had demonstrated a clear willingness to kill hostages, and the capacity to do so en masse with great speed. The fact that so many are alive today is a blessing.

And bottom line, the government response was one that will not provide encouragement to the next group of murderous thugs who believe their grievances justify this brand of idiocy.

Could there have been a better way? Maybe. I know I sure as hell would hate to have been the one to make this particular call.
posted by John Smallberries at 11:01 AM on October 28, 2002


According to NPR's Talk of The Nation's Moscow correspondent, aerosolized fentanyl or valium are suspected. The special forcces did name an antidote to medical authorities--bare minutes before the onslaught began--an antidote of which the hospitals had little and the paramedics on scene had none.
posted by y2karl at 11:32 AM on October 28, 2002


Wait a minute. Did anyone else read that the gas killed 116 hostages? Surely this wasn't part of the calculated risk. Something must have gone wrong.

I'm sure they were hoping for fewer deaths, but 116 out of the original number is still a pretty reasonable loss factor.

Yeah, I know that some of the more sensitive readers are thinking "There's no such thing as acceptable losses! Every life is a precious snowflake!", etc.

But when you've got a theater packed with people and deranged terrorists ready to kill themselves, the hostages, and anyone else, the precious snowflake theory goes out the door and it all comes down to numbers.

This isn't Hollywood. There's no Wesley Snipes, no Harrison Ford, no Arnold Schwarzenegger to go in there with an grenade launcher and rescue little Timmy and his teddy bear. These are, by their nature, messy situations. The Russians had to go in and save as many people as they could, knowing full well that civilians would die. They did that, and they didn't do a half bad job of it either.

It could have been better. Maybe they miscalculated the effects of the gas. (When was the last time you tried introducing quick-acting gasses into the ventilation system of a large building and precisely calculating exactly how much each person would inhale?)

In hindsight, they could have done X, Y, and Z to make the operation better. They should have told the medics what gas had been used, or provided some kind of antidote. I'm not trying to say that the Russians did a perfect job, but merely that they handled an intrinsically messy situation with reasonably good judgement and quick action.
posted by oissubke at 11:32 AM on October 28, 2002


A note to Russian authorities: If I am ever taken hostage in your land, DO NOT rescue me!!
Reminds me of the story of the cop "marksman" in Florida who blew away the hostage instead of the bad guy(except on a bigger scale).
A how to rescue plan-Entebbe
A not how to- Moscow
But what do you expect from the folks that gave us that piece of junk in space
posted by joemeek at 11:37 AM on October 28, 2002


The terrorist were executed - not killed by the gas.

Or were they just left to die after passing out from the gas? Either way, the choice about who to take out for treatment first, the terrorist or the hostage isn't that much of a choice. And given the choice between this and having to endure 'interrigation' by the Russians, I think never waking sleepy land would be preferable.
posted by CoolHandPuke at 11:50 AM on October 28, 2002



Take a gander for yourself
CoolHandPuke.
posted by blogRot at 11:57 AM on October 28, 2002


I heard the same program y2karl did, and it gave some good insights. I know a little bit about knocking people out with drugs, and I would probably choose a fentanyl derivative, if one were available. These drugs have been researched for this purpose and one clinically used drug in this group, sufentanil, is effective in relieving pain and causing sedation at doses as little as 5 micrograms; in other words, 1 gram can supply up to 200,000 doses. Other, more powerful versions have been researched. Despite their potency, these drugs are extremely safe when carefully adminstered to fully monitored patients in the OR; it is obviously another matter when given as an unregulated aerosol to a large number of people in varying degrees of health. My suspicion was further heightened when I heard that some Drs. were told to use Narcan (naloxone) to treat pts. One of the advantages of these drugs is that there is a widely available antidote. Valium and related compounds are not potent enough to use in this fashion, the BZ-type agents take too long to work, and as has been mentioned it would not do to have the terrorists hallucinating on top of everything else. Although no one has brought it up, more typical anesthetic gasses (halothane, isoflurane, etc.) take a little longer to work at safe levels, would be easy to overdose the hostages with, and have a strong smell that would tip off the terrorists.
posted by TedW at 11:59 AM on October 28, 2002


(One officer said he lost two of his own to the gas).

Lost or were affected?

Two of our fighters also suffered from gas poisoning. They are now in the hospital,” the officer said.
posted by thomcatspike at 12:08 PM on October 28, 2002


Take a gander for yourself CoolHandPuke.

Wether or not they were alive could be debateable, but I realize it's a moot point. I'm sure the soldiers shot to be sure the terrorist were no longer a threat. All if would take is one with a detanator to wake for just a second. Can't say I blame them either.
posted by CoolHandPuke at 12:15 PM on October 28, 2002


Even if, theoretically, gas was the best of the bad options available, it was inexcusable that 1) they didn't have medical help available right outside the theater, and 2) they refused to tell doctors what had been used and how to neutralize it.

(Repeated from my comment at tail end of now-defunct earlier thread.)
posted by languagehat at 12:21 PM on October 28, 2002


As a hypothesis why they didn't tell the physicians, I'm guessing that it's because some kinds of chemical gases are banned from military/police use by international treaty. While I'm not sure of the specific status of BZ, I'm guessing that if any of the ex-hostages wanted to take Russia to the ICC over the use of gas, they wouldn't have too tough a time doing so.

Frankly, I'm surprised they didn't use nitrous oxide. You know, the laughing gas they give you at the dentist's office? As far as I know, it's much safer to use, and hell, it's probably more common and easier to obtain to boot. I don't recall it even having a smell, really.

And I'm not convinced that 'smell' is too pertinent a factor in this case. Seven-hundred and fifty people who haven't bathed and all of whom must've gone to the bathroom at some point leave a pretty powerful stench.

On a related and some unfortunate note, I heard the death count had climbed to 118 today with the death of a few ex-hostages in the hospital from the gas.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 12:25 PM on October 28, 2002


This speculation about what kind of gas was used reminds me of the recent speculation about whether the DC sniper was an al Qaeda operative or a lone white male....
posted by oissubke at 12:26 PM on October 28, 2002


I can see how the government might be tight-lipped on what they used, but I do find it reprehensible that they didn't have emergency crews waiting outside.
posted by agregoli at 12:27 PM on October 28, 2002


I'm sure they were hoping for fewer deaths, but 116 out of the original number is still a pretty reasonable loss factor.

Yeah, I know that some of the more sensitive readers are thinking "There's no such thing as acceptable losses! Every life is a precious snowflake!", etc.

I'm not trying to say that the Russians did a perfect job, but merely that they handled an intrinsically messy situation with reasonably good judgement and quick action.


And then--

This speculation about what kind of gas was used reminds me of the recent speculation about whether the DC sniper was an al Qaeda operative or a lone white male....

Pardon me while I choke on my own vomit.
posted by y2karl at 12:46 PM on October 28, 2002


Pardon me while I choke on my own vomit.

I'm sorry, the point of that statement eludes me. Could you please clarify?
posted by oissubke at 1:19 PM on October 28, 2002


I found your pontifications fatuous.
posted by y2karl at 1:50 PM on October 28, 2002


They had three days to come up with a plan and this was the best option?
posted by whatnot at 2:53 PM on October 28, 2002


I found your pontifications fatuous.

fat·u·ous: Vacuously, smugly, and unconsciously foolish. See synonyms at foolish. From Latin fatuus.

It's funny, the statement "Pardon me while I choke on my own vomit" reminded me of that very word....
posted by oissubke at 2:55 PM on October 28, 2002


They had three days to come up with a plan and this was the best option?

You have a better idea, maybe?
posted by oissubke at 2:55 PM on October 28, 2002


Frankly, I'm surprised they didn't use nitrous oxide...

Nitrous oxide is far too weak an anesthetic for such use; it does not cause unconsciousness until it is at over 1 atmosphere of pressure, and because it is used at such high concentrations, it must be given with supplemental oxygen. It has very little smell, however, and could have been a useful addition to the primary gas for a number of reasons.

As far as odors are concerned, the odor of halogenated anesthetics is far different from that of unbathed humans, and would still have been obvious, especially at the higher concentrations needed to induce rapid unconsciousness.
posted by TedW at 3:16 PM on October 28, 2002


You have a better idea, maybe?

No, I guess that means you are right about everything, all the time. Congratulations oissubke!
posted by whatnot at 4:01 PM on October 28, 2002


U.S. Says Gas Used Was Opiate - Moscow Times

Ambulance teams picking hostages up at the theater were ordered to inject hostages with Naloxone, a powerful medicine used to treat patients who overdose on opium derivatives such as morphine and heroine, NTV television reported Monday.
posted by y2karl at 5:35 PM on October 28, 2002


they should've just pumped in clouds and clouds of crack cocaine. then the terrorists would've gotten hooked, and tried to trade their bombs and hostages for another hit.
posted by Degaz at 6:36 PM on October 28, 2002


I would probably choose a fentanyl derivative, if one were available. (TedW)

Ambulance teams picking hostages up at the theater were ordered to inject hostages with Naloxone, a powerful medicine used to treat patients who overdose on opium derivatives such as morphine and heroine, NTV television reported Monday.

Ding! I think we have a winner. Naloxone's also indicated for fentanyl poisoning.

Betcha anything that it was a fentanyl-type substance along with dimethyl sulfoxide or some other agent to help with transport.
posted by ptermit at 7:37 PM on October 28, 2002


Upon review, this caught my eye--

I know a little bit about knocking people out with drugs (TedW)

Please expand upon this provocative remark.
posted by y2karl at 7:57 PM on October 28, 2002


No, I guess that means you are right about everything, all the time. Congratulations oissubke!

Thanks! It's hard, but I try....
posted by oissubke at 9:16 PM on October 28, 2002


Jane's says it might have included something called adamasite (I think they mean adamsite), a 'vomiting agent.'
posted by shoos at 9:18 PM on October 28, 2002


Thanks! It's hard, but I try....

Ah, staircase wit, albeit by half....
posted by y2karl at 9:23 PM on October 28, 2002


A German doctor who treated some of the hostages told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that he was sure that the gas was a form of conventional anaesthesia. He refused to name the gas without further research, but specifically rejected the US opiate theory. Apparently the suggested compound can't be aerosolised properly.

In other news Russian sources are now saying that 41 hostages died of gunshot wounds rather than gas.( Can't find a link yet)

I think the Russians did a good job here. Bear in mind that the theatre had been mined with substantial amounts of explosive. Bear in mind there were around 50 terrorists. If that had been detonated there would have been a lot less hostages coming out. They had to ensure those bombs weren't set off.

Now the Russian secrecy afterwards certainly can be criticised, but to expect no casualties from this kind of situation is hopelessly niave.
posted by prentiz at 2:10 AM on October 29, 2002


y2karl; I am an anesthesiologist at the Medical College of Georgia. (self link of sorts, but since you asked...)
posted by TedW at 6:09 AM on October 29, 2002


This was my first guess, Dr. Ted ;)
posted by y2karl at 11:22 AM on October 29, 2002


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