The unexploded pipe bombs found on chemical storage tanks in Norfolk, Va., Feb. 4 could have "wiped out" a residential area and caused "unprecedented environmental damage" for a square mile around the tank farm, a federal prosecutor in Baltimore says.
In a successful effort to have the chief suspect in the case denied bail, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ira L. Oring said yesterday it was "sheer luck" that the bombs did not explode and wreak havoc on the area.
U.S. Magistrate Paul M. Rosenberg agreed and ordered Charles E. Gresham Jr., 57, of Ellicott City, held without bond pending trial on a charge of conspiracy to commit a felony.
At a hearing in U.S. District Court here, Oring said time "had run out" on the kitchen timers that were to have set off the explosives, but faulty fuses prevented ignition.
Had they exploded, "there would have been untold casualties" and massive environmental damage that would have been nearly impossible to correct, Oring said, quoting a Norfolk fire official.
Oring said the explosions would have sent toxic fumes into the air, causing skin and eye burns to people in a nearby residential area and to the 1,000 workers at a nearby shipyard. The fumes also could have caused a secondary blast at Miller Oil Co., a half-mile away. In addition, there would have been leaks of highly toxic chemicals into the Elizabeth River and substantial damage to a medical waste disposal facility.
Rosenberg ordered detention for Gresham.
The FBI has accused Gresham of arranging 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 in one of the tanks where a tank farm employee found the pipe bombs Feb. 4.
Gresham was arrested Saturday. Two Arizona men, Joseph W. Openshaw and Cecil Ross, are charged with conspiracy in the case.
FBI Agent Jeffrey A. Lampinsky testified yesterday that investigators don't yet know who actually planted the bombs at the site. He said a federal task force is probing the bombing attempt.
Oring also said Gresham operated several businesses, including one in Brazil.
Applied Technology Inc., which Gresham operated out of his Ellicott City home, had gross receipts of up to $400,000 a month, Rosenberg said.
According to other sources, Gresham has claimed to have extensive property holdings in other states and in foreign countries, but had a reputation of exaggerating his holdings to swing large business deals.
He was cited in 1988 by the Maryland insurance commissioner for operating three companies here -- Oak Charter Title Insurance Co., based in the Bahamas, and Anchor Insurance Co. and Oak Charter Insurance Ltd. in Ellicott City -- without a state license.
Martha Roach, the acting commissioner, ordered Gresham to close the companies, pay a $25,000 penalty and return premiums to policyholders.
Gresham also was scheduled to give a deposition next month in a fraud and breach of contract suit filed against him in Howard County Circuit Court. The lawsuit alleges that he failed to repay a $50,000 loan and sold two Baltimore properties he had used as collateral without telling his creditors.
The suit, filed Sept. 13, 1989, by Michael and Diedre Gafney, of Glenwood, names nine other defendants in the action, including Gresham's now-defunct Oak Charter company.