The battered white van seems to like it has been deserted – its front bumper is lacking, and one of many rear tires is somewhat reduced. Just a few people mill around close by, talking and laughing in the otherwise quiet square. They do not notice the wisp of smoke curling out from below the vehicle.
Within a few minutes, it has become a torrent, pouring around the doors and from an exhaust pipe projecting under the van. The white cloud almost completely covers these standing close by, and a woman lets out a small scream as a sudden shift within the wind sends the plume billowing in my path.
As it scatters around me, I get the faint taste of old chewing gum. I can hear people coughing, and shapes close by a drop to the ground. Some stutter and ask out for help. Others lie very still. It takes 20 minutes before dark blue flashing lights appear across the nook, indicating help is on its way. Firefighters climb into cumbersome safety suits with full respiratory equipment. They transfer from sufferer to sufferer, checking who may be saved and who’s beyond help.
Luckily for me and the others in the small southern Finnish town of Mikkeli, that is only a rehearsal – preparation for an exercise the next day that may affect a chemical attack. The situation – a terrorist cell has launched a poisonous nerve agent into a market square between the lunchtime bustle – is designed to check pioneering new technology that would rework how emergency providers reply to chemical releases.