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City manager says never again after overnight Army training exercise panics north Raleigh neighborhood

March 29, 2019

The Army conducted a Special Operations training exercise in Raleigh overnight Thursday, leading to sounds of explosions and gunfire off Capital Boulevard north of Interstate 440 that panicked nearby residents.

Helicopters flew low over the Brentwood neighborhood for several hours, and simulated weapons fire and munitions explosions could be heard near the defunct Capital Plaza Hotel, residents said.

Some residents said they thought the country was at war when they heard the commotion, saying they had no clue a training exercise was taking place.

“One of the neighbor’s daughters is eight months pregnant with her first pregnancy, and she was having trouble breathing. We were afraid she was going to go into premature labor,” said a woman who identified herself only as Dana. “One of the neighbors had his guns out. It was crazy.”

City Manager Ruffin Hall said Raleigh has a long-standing practice of cooperating with the military on training exercises and that he agreed to allow Thursday night’s exercise. The Army wanted to use the Capital Plaza Hotel because of its “unique condition” – it has been vacant for many years – and its urban location, he said.

“The U.S. Army’s approach is that the public is not generally or broadly notified prior to the event to avoid attracting large numbers of spectators,” Hall wrote in a letter Friday to Mayor Nancy McFarlane and City Council members.

Still, Raleigh police officers and Army representatives went door to door Thursday afternoon to leave fliers notifying area businesses and homeowners of the late-night exercise.

Some residents said Friday that they never got the message.

“We didn’t know what was going on, and we didn’t get any notice,” Dana said.

Some people called 911 to report the explosions.

“I’m just hearing a loud boom. I’m over by Capital Boulevard, and I’m hearing helicopters. What’s going on?” one person asked a 911 dispatcher.

An employee at a Dunkin’ Donuts on Capital Boulevard at I-440 said she, coworkers and customers also didn’t know what was happening when they heard explosions and helicopters.

“We heard what sounded like shootings, explosions, and it sounded really, really loud to where even the customers were scared,” Janet Mondragon said, adding that she saw at least a dozen helicopters fly by.

“The first ones were really fast and really close down, so that’s what kind of scared everyone around here,” Mondragon said.

“You never see none of this going on,” she continued. “It kind of scared everyone. Some people thought there was a manhunt; some people thought there was a terrorist.”

One nearby resident said the air currents generated by the helicopters damaged a portion of her fence.

Stephanie Lormand describes herself as an Army brat, but she said the exercise was a bit much even for her.

“You can hear someone’s car alarm going off,” Lormand said as she showed a cellphone video of the exercise to a WRAL News crew. “You will see the smoke when the helicopters show up. [There’s] automatic machine gun fire, the flash grenades.”

Because of the confusion and because the exercise was more intense than Raleigh officials were led to believe, Hall told the mayor and the City Council he wouldn’t approve such exercises in the future.

“The exercise turned out to be louder and more disruptive to the nearby neighborhood than the city anticipated, given our understanding of the proposed conditions,” he wrote. “Upon review and lessons learned, I would not approve an exercise of this scale and disruption adjacent to a neighborhood in the future.”

Army officials said it’s necessary to train Special Forces in urban environments, so the overnight exercise in Raleigh isn’t unusual. They said they work with local officials to help determine what residents to notify ahead of time.

Residents said they agree that military training is important, but they said the location and size of Thursday night’s exercise and the lack of communication was problematic.

“They need to do their training exercises, obviously. It is very important. It was just, we had no notice,” Dana said.