Bomb technician retires to safety of ATF

County detective will plan explosives training

February 14, 2000|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

On Sept. 11, 1995, Baltimore County police Detective Jim Geibel sat down to dinner with his family. It was a precious moment of quiet for a man in a nerve-wracking profession.

Suddenly the phone rang, alerting him to a huge explosion behind Middlesex Shopping Center in Essex.

At the scene, he found the smoldering metal skeleton of a station wagon. The powerful blast had punched the engine block 25 feet through the air. White sheets covered four bodies. A fifth victim would die later.

A despondent Mark Alen Clark had gathered his estranged wife and their three small children into the station wagon after telling the children he would buy them school supplies. Then he detonated a bomb packed in a cooler in front of the front seat.

As Geibel, 52, retired from the county Police Department's bomb squad last month, he carried the memory of the Essex explosion and others with him to a new and safer career with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Washington, which he begins this week.

Reflecting on the job he is leaving behind, Geibel says: "There are old bomb technicians, there are bold bomb technicians, but there are no old, bold bomb technicians."

A police officer since 1972 and bomb technician for 12 years, Geibel will work in ATF's Explosives Technical Branch, where he will plan training, research and operations.

After hundreds of bomb calls, Geibel will tell you he's flirted with danger enough. But in the same breath, he talks of picking apart bombs as his calling in life, his preordained mission.

"We always had to presume the worst and work from there," he says.

Thankfully, Geibel says, the number of bomb threats in Baltimore County has been few. Most of the 225 calls his squad gets every year are to remove old artillery shells or hand grenades, or to dispose of aging dynamite, which becomes less stable with time.

If he wasn't putting on his 75-pound bomb suit for such a call, Geibel was teaching or lecturing before federal agencies, private corporations or police departments.

As a kid growing up in Chicago, Geibel -- like many youngsters of that era -- owned a chemistry set and learned to make gunpowder, and other explosives, at home.

"I liked to blow things up then," he says. "I'm lucky I survived."

Over the years, the soft-spoken Geibel has earned the respect of other professionals in the elite bomb disposal field nationwide.

"It takes a unique person to be a bomb technician, and Jim is unique," says Scott Taylor, a member of ATF's northeast explosives response team, which is based in Baltimore.

"Jim is such a perfectionist, [he's] one never to cut corners and he always wants to learn more," says Taylor. "Two years ago, he began a national e-mail system for bomb technicians, news on anything from firecrackers to chemical and biological agents, terrorist groups to Russian politics."

Geibel moved to Baltimore in the late 1960s while serving in military intelligence at Fort Holabird. He worked for the Norristown, Pa., police force from 1972 to 1982, then joined the Baltimore County Police Department.

Before being assigned to the bomb squad, Geibel worked in a plainclothes drug unit.

Geibel retires as senior technician on Baltimore County's bomb squad, which is staffed by two to four full-time technicians.

Geibel leaves the risky business to a pair of younger men he has trained for a year, Officers Rob Conroy and Richard Walsh. Theywill be responsible for blowing up old dynamite and sifting through new intelligence reports of botulism and anthrax scares.

Geibel's retirement is the county's loss and the federal government's gain, says county Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan.

"Unfortunately, we don't find too many Geibels out there anymore," says Sheridan. "He is a marvelous technician and teacher. He plied a craft in which you couldn't make a mistake."

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