A federal prosecutor in Baltimore said today that the unexploded pipe bombs found on chemical storage tanks in Norfolk, Va., last week could have "wiped out" a residential area and caused "unprecedented environmental damage" for a square mile around the tank farm.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ira L. Oring said it was "sheer luck" that the bombs did not explode.
He said time "had run out" on the kitchen timers that were to have set off the explosives, but faulty fuses prevented ignition of the bombs.
Had they exploded, "there would have been untold casualties" and massive environmental damage that would have been nearly impossible to correct, Oring said.
He said the explosions would have sent toxic fumes into the air over a nearby residential area and a 1,000-worker shipyard, causing skin and eye burns to people in their path; caused a secondary explosion at an oil company half a mile away; and caused leakage of highly toxic chemicals into the Elizabeth River and substantial damage to a medical-waste disposal facility.
The prosecutor described the near-miss in U.S. District Court here as he asked Magistrate Paul M. Rosenberg to detain defendant Charles E. Gresham Jr., of Ellicott City, without bond pending trial on a charge of conspiracy to commit a felony.
Rosenberg ordered detention for Gresham, saying, "he has every reason to flee. . . . I am convinced that his conviction is inevitable."
The FBI has accused Gresham, who was arrested Saturday, of masterminding the explosions so he could collect $2.7 million worth of insurance on 1.6 million gallons of toxic, highly flammable sodium hydrosulfide that he could not sell. The chemical was stored in one of the tanks, where a tank farm employee found the pipe bombs Feb. 4.
Oring described the plot -- in which two other suspects are
charged -- as Gresham's "coldly calculated" decision. He said Gresham knew, and discussed with others, the damage the explosions would cause in the surrounding area.
The pipe bombs were attached to the tank containing Gresham's chemical and an adjacent tank that contained 500,000 gallons of methanol, another highly flammable chemical, Oring said.
FBI Agent Jeffrey A. Lampinsky testified that investigators don't know who actually planted the bombs.