Condemned housing aids police bomb training Blasts in vacant buildings used to solve test cases

June 29, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

One month before the Lexington Terrace high-rises are to be blown up to usher in a new era of public housing, police experts yesterday set off their own bombs in the vacant buildings to practice solving cases.

A series of three explosions rocked the area in the 700 block of W. Saratoga St., giving teams of local and federal authorities a chance to practice their skills at detecting explosives and finding minuscule fragments that can solve cases.

"This is really a unique opportunity," said Officer Joseph A. Costantini, an investigator with the Baltimore Police Bomb Squad.

"We can always get a farmer up in Harford County to let us blow up a car in his field. We can reconstruct a car bomb with our eyes closed," he said. "But people aren't lining up saying, 'Joe, come in our apartment and set off a bomb.' "

With city officials scheduled to demolish the Lexington Terrace high-rises on July 27, the vacant buildings provided a realistic setting.

The idea was not to blow up the buildings -- three bombs were placed in three low-rise apartments -- but to simulate relatively small explosions.

"We're trying to duplicate something that could reasonably happen here," said Lt. Donald Healy, commander of the city's bomb squad unit. "We're not trying to replicate Oklahoma City."

Yesterday's practice explosions went off at 15-minute intervals starting about 9 a.m. The first was relatively small, but the next two shook the ground about a half-block away. Damage to the apartments was minimal -- plaster fell and windows were shattered -- but investigators spent all day trying to figure out what explosives were used and piecing together an investigation.

Police would not detail specifics of the bombs, such as how they were made or how much explosive material was used. But one bomb was a pipe filled with balls of gunpowder; the other was a C-4 plastic military explosive; and the third was a Deta-Sheet explosive, used by demolition companies.

In one apartment, police had a mannequin dressed in a bulletproof vest and helmet standing over a bomb, as if he were trying to disarm it. A person standing there would have been killed, they said, even with the protective gear.

"This was not a cowboy exercise," Costantini said. "All these bombs that we used are replicas of devices that have been used in crimes."

Pub Date: 6/29/96

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