FBI conducts blasts in name of education Federal, local officers get firsthand look at investigating blasts

August 19, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

First, they blew up some tires, shooting them about 30 feet into the air in a fiery blast. Then they did a sturdy, steel desk, a maroon Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and a chicken carcass stuffed with a detonator.

About 30 uniformed men at Fort Meade's firearms range had interesting toys to play with -- and explode -- all in the name of education.

The three-hour explosives demonstration yesterday was part of a five-day course the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Baltimore office is holding this week for 23 federal and local law-enforcement officials on investigating bombings and gathering evidence after terrorist attacks.

"The key is good-quality and well-preserved evidence," said David R. Williams, the FBI bomb technician who organized and led the course. "That's what we're trying to teach. In any bombing situation, [local law enforcement officials] will be the first to respond."

Williams' students came from 17 Maryland and Delaware agencies, including Dover Air Force Base, Aberdeen Proving Ground and police and fire departments in Ocean City, Baltimore, and Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties.

Peter A. Gulotta Jr., FBI spokesman, said the courses -- which the bureau organizes about 45 times a year around the country -- are essential to teach local officials how to help agents in the aftermath of bombings.

"In any investigation, if you taint the evidence because you handle it improperly, it's useless," Gulotta said. "It could affect the prosecution."

Flanked by fire hoses, a full water tank and assistants armed with firefighting equipment, Williams began the demonstration at 1 p.m. by distributing earplugs. Then he detonated a dramatic "pil- lar of fire" -- a line of gasoline jugs strung on a clothesline that created a bright, orange wall of flames.

After the initial crowd-pleaser, Williams' students and a handful of spectators from the FBI and National Security Agency watched as he and his assistants mixed liquid and powdered chemicals, explained how bombs get made and what effects they have, and even doled out tips on household storage safety.

"You know that [pool chlorine] that many people store in the garage?" Williams asked. "On the shelf above it, you may store brake fluid, which has glycerin in it, and if it drips onto the [chlorine] it can cause a fire."

He talked about the odors of bombs -- certain mixtures smell of cotton candy, while others which involve wood leave a cedar scent in the air -- and how the the colors of their flames and smoke can indicate the explosive's ingredients.

Williams also walked his students through the debris of his detonations, pointing out telltale substances, craters and dime-sized holes that can help investigators piece together a bomb's origin.

In a car bombing, he instructed them, swab residue from steel parking signs nearby. The way the signs are bent also can tell investigators about the force of the blast.

While the FBI course is not linked to the recent Africa bombings, Williams said he had to scramble to look for new assistants after bomb technicians from Baltimore and Washington were sent overseas to help collect evidence.

His staff yesterday included bomb experts from Ocean City, Baltimore County and the state fire marshal's office.

Pub Date: 8/19/98

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