Firearms bureau plays starring role in bomb probe Baltimore agent leads Treasury team in hunt through trade center rubble

March 07, 1993|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Nursing beers in a five-star financial distric hotel, bomb investigators of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms speak with quiet pride about their line of methodical work, which has already led to arrests in the World Trade Center bombing case and helped burnish their organization's reputation.

After a tumultuous week that saw the bureau criticized for tactics used in a failed, bloody raid on a Texas cult, the 25-person team has helped shift attention to the bureau's backbone of veteran law enforcement agents, chemists and explosive experts.

Led by Baltimore agent Dan Boeh, the bureau's quick-response bomb team has set on its task with a controlled fury.

The group has worked 12-hour shifts in the dank crater under the 110-story twin towers in a bid to prove what they have long believed: When it comes to bombs, their agency is second to none.

"I feel privileged to be here. The only thing I can compare it to is entering a major league baseball stadium with the green grass and the crowd, and you go 'wow,' " said Kevin Washington, a 37-year-old agent from the bureau's Baltimore office and a former Baltimore Police Department arson and bomb expert.

Despite the work put in, Mr. Washington and his colleagues have really just started to sift through the tons of rubble for clues to the bombing that killed five people, injured 1,000 and cost at least $1 billion in damages to the world's financial heart.

But already they have found parts of the van thought to have carried the bomb, a find that has led to two arrests and the discovery of explosives in New Jersey.

The success has helped temper some complaints that the bureau might be in over its head on big cases, such as the Texas siege.

Here in New York, however, the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has been the star.

"When I leave the pit, there are crowds of reporters calling, 'Hey, Dan.' " It's like they've found their long-lost cousin or something," Mr. Boeh said.

The bureau has 2,000 employees, including 52 in the newly formed Baltimore office. They are divided into four regions, each of which has a National Response Team. Mr. Boeh's team handles cases in the Northeast but may soon be supplemented by another team as the investigation goes into its second week.

Five Marylanders are at the New York site: Mr. Boeh, Mr. Washington, Roy Cheeks, an official with the Baltimore office, and two explosives experts from the bureau's Washington lab, which analyzes data from 1,000 blasts each year.

One of the lab workers, Roy Parker, said he had no doubt that the World Trade Center's bomb would be reconstructed and that agents would learn exactly how it worked.

"It's amazing what does survive. We've had teeny pieces, almost microscopic in size, that make up the bomb," said Mr. Parker, 60, from La Plata.

One case, for example, was won when lab technicians found two grains of explosive in an apartment. Another bomb mystery was solved because the explosives carried tiny magnetic particles put in to make tracing easier. The agents complain that the use of the particles has been banned by Congress at the urging of the gun lobby.

By contrast, the initial phase of this investigation has been dizzyingly easy, if no less backbreaking or painstaking. On Thursday, agents spotted a 3-foot piece of a van's frame part-way down the crater left by the blast. A serial number stamped on the steel chunk was all that was needed to find the manufacturer, buyer and the person who rented the van in New Jersey.

Much work, however, remains to be done before the area is cleared and the 110-story towers reopen.

The bomb site resembles a sinkhole, with huge slabs of broken concrete running from the hole on parking level B2, where the bomb exploded, down to B5, where heaps of charred automobiles and twisted concrete lie.

Investigators are working only around the crater's edge, Mr. Boeh said, until the floors are shored up, although some agents use mountain rappelling gear to bounce down into the crater, a technique used to recover the key piece of frame.

So far, investigators have hauled out seven garbage trucks full of debris -- by hand.

Although the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is coordinating the search, its teams include officers from the New York Police Department, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the firearms bureau's old rivals, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

While the FBI may be better known, the firearms bureau agents maintain that their approach has yielded a constant record of success.

By methodically tracing the evidence -- even if it means sending hundreds of agents out to track the shipment of a certain chemical -- investigators sooner or later find their man, Mr. Boeh said.

Sitting in the bar of the hotel, which the bureau has to leave today because it has become too expensive for the government, Mr. Boeh looks exhausted. The cold, dark, concrete hole has left him and his officers achy and tired.

"There's a certain breed of person attracted to this job. They have to be patient and tenacious," Mr. Boeh said. "If it takes six days, it takes six days. If it takes six years, it takes six years. But sooner or later you track the evidence and get your man."

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