Munitions experts comb explosion site

June 30, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

The Navy called in experts from around the nation yesterday to determine the cause of a massive explosion Sunday at its weapons testing facility in the Washington suburbs.

Munitions experts took inventory in nine similar bunkers around the Naval Surface Warfare Center in White Oak between Silver Spring and Beltsville to make sure stored ingredients used to make explosives had not been disturbed. Residents neighboring the center cleaned up broken windows and wondered what to expect next.

"It makes you wonder what else is back there, what else could happen," said Howard Phoebus, whose third-floor condominium in Beltsville overlooks the center's eastern edge.

"We want the government to be straight with us. We hope this is as bad as it could ever get," said Mr. Phoebus, a 38-year-old Realtor.

His Cherry Glen Complex on Cherry Hill Road had 40 windows broken, according to a glass company worker who inspected the damage.

The blast blew out or broke at least 78 windows next door in the 25-acre Maryland Farms Condominium complex, maintenance worker Joe Morgan said.

The warfare center would not allow cameras into the blast area, but it did release videotape showing aerial views of the site.

The videotape shows the concrete entrance of an intact bunker under a grassy hill and, a few hundred yards away, a crater where an identical 20-foot by 15-foot bunker had been. The explosion, believed to have the power of 3,000 pounds of TNT, ripped apart 3-foot-thick concrete walls.

"We have opened all of the magazines to make sure that there was nothing disturbed," said Diane Palermo, a spokeswoman for the center. She added that munitions experts were also checking inventories to make sure stored chemicals did not pose a further threat. She said that the destroyed bunker had probably been entered within the last week for storage or retrieval of chemicals.

Ms. Palermo said investigators did not suspect sabotage, but would not rule it out until completing their probe.

The blast dropped large chunks of concrete onto buildings in the center and broke up to 150 windows in the area, according to workers and Navy representatives sent out to survey the damage.

"We are going to pay for all the damage," Ms. Palermo said. The total amount of damage was estimated at about $25,000, according to local apartment and condominium owners.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer sent a letter yesterday to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney requesting a meeting of officials from Defense Department and state emergency agencies to plan response to future incidents.

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