ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND -- Two munitions handlers were killed here yesterday morning when an explosion ripped through a munitions processing bay while they loaded propellant into a shell.
The blast victims, both civilians, were identified as Norman L. Barcase, 40, of Abingdon, a 17-year veteran munitions handler, and John Zielinski, 41, of Aberdeen, who had worked with munitions only a few months.
Both were pronounced dead at the scene.
Proving ground spokesman John G. Yaquiant said the accident occurred about 11 a.m. in one of several processing bays at the East Ammunition Assembly Plant, one of two primary processing plants at the sprawling military facility.
The deaths were the first munitions-related fatalities at the 74-year-old proving ground in at least 30 years.
"All of the employees, civilian and military, kind of consider everyone as family," said Col. Ed Fouch, commander of the 1,800-member Combat Systems Test Activity, to which the victims belonged. "This is a tragic experience for us. We're going to do everything possible that we can for the families of these men."
He said the two men were attempting to load 12 to 13 pounds o M-30 powder propellant into a 105mm anti-tank shell, which already contained propellant, when it exploded.
The shell is a 15-pound, 40-inch casing used in recent firing tests of a new, lightweight anti-tank gun at the proving ground. The extra propellant gives the shell a higher pressure required for the test firing.
The shell was "inert," or without a fuse, at the time of the blast, he said.
The men apparently were "uploading" or putting more propellant into the shell, as required for the test, he said, adding that more than 100 similar shells have been processed recently without incident.
The munitions handlers were the only people in the 20-by-35-foot processing bay at the time of the explosion, which rocked the reinforced concrete walls of the 100-by-50-foot building.
Five other people in the building at the time of the blast were evacuated quickly by safety crews. No injuries were reported.
The explosion started a small fire, which was contained by the sprinkler system until the Aberdeen Proving Ground Fire Department arrived to coat the bay with fire-suppressing foam. The bodies of the two men were found inside the damaged bay.
Investigators from the Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., were to arrive last night to determine the cause of the explosion. Processing of the shells has been suspended in the meantime.
As part of standard procedure, munitions handlers are required to wear flame-retardant clothing head-to-toe, including hats, gloves and safety glasses, while working with the unstable compounds. Handlers also are prohibited from carrying matches, lighters, watches, rings or keys because they could generate static electricity.
Limits also are put on the number of employees working in a given processing bay, as well as on the amount of explosive to be on hand.
"We've had a good safety record out here," Mr. Yaquiant said. "Our munitions handlers are well-trained, and safety measures were in effect. But when you are dealing with explosive powder, risk is involved."
He said the deaths occurred just as the sprawling Harford County military installation was celebrating the recent return of two Army Reserve units from Saudi Arabia that had been among six processed through the facility before Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf.
"It's been a very 'up' time the last few days," Mr. Yaquiant said. "This is a real tragedy."