Bomb gets city day off to a lively start

Cleanup of scrap yard uncovers 5 old explosives

May 06, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

It was 7:25 a.m. yesterday, under a sunny spring sky, when a construction worker in southern Baltimore started his day by throttling up a backhoe to clear scrap metal from an old shipyard.

Using a claw-like device, he clutched and raised what looked like a pipe. But as the dirt tumbled away, he could tell it was something unusual.

The man hopped down to take a closer look and discovered it was a bomb, according to Darlene Frank, director of communications for the Maryland Port Administration, which hired the worker.

Within a short period, four more bombs - weighing as much as 4,000 pounds each - had been found in the shipyard, and officials from the U.S. Department of Defense were investigating and clearing people out of a 2,000-foot potential blast zone around the area.

"I don't know if he was frightened, but he was definitely surprised." Frank said of the worker. "It was not the way he wanted to start his Wednesday morning."

None of the bombs detonated. Officials said yesterday that they were trying to determine whether the ordnance might have come from the 1947-built aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea or other military ships scrapped over the decades along the industrial Fairfield waterfront.

The first bomb unearthed - which resembled those dropped from airplanes - had been defused before the workers with Potts & Callahan Contracting Co. discovered it, said Cpl. Greg Prioleau, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

"The military is here to determine if the remaining ordnance is live, and if there are any other buried ordnance in the area." said Prioleau, who talked to reporters outside the gates to the Maryland Port Administration property.

The worker refused to speak to the media, and officials would not release his name yesterday.

No one lives nearby. The junk-filled former shipyard is next to a huge parking lot where thousands of Toyota vans are stored after being unloaded from cargo ships.

The Maryland Port Administration bought the 10 acres of waterfront property, in the 3000 block of Childs St., for $885,000 at foreclosure on Nov. 3, 2000, from a ship-scrapping company, Kurt Iron & Metal Co., according to state records.

The state is working to clear the site, cover the polluted ground with three feet of dirt and then blacktop it so that it can be marketed to an industrial tenant. It is viewed as potentially "hot property' because of its location on the waterfront, Frank said.

But a sign on the barbed-wire-topped fence warns of the challenges to building on the site: "Contaminants of concern at the site include heavy metals, PCB's and petroleum-related compounds."

State officials had planned to deal with pollution, not explosive devices. Although several Navy ships had been scrapped at the site since World War II, the state believed the military had been removing all of the bombs before turning the ships over to the salvage companies, state officials said.

"This is a surprise." said Frank of the discovery of the bombs. "But given the history of the site, I guess it is to be expected."

Land just east of the site was used by the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard, Inc. during World War II to build 384 lightly armed cargo vessels, called Liberty Ships.

Bethlehem Steel later sold the shipyard to Patapsco Scrap Corp., which worked until 1984 dismantling battleships and other Navy vessels, Keith said.

Just to the west, on the former Kurt Iron & Metal site - where the bombs were found - scrap companies until the late 1990s ripped apart and sold parts of decommissioned military vessels, including the 972-foot-long Coral Sea.

The problems of the industry were described in a 1997 series in The Sun called "The Shipbreakers." The demolition of the old military ships at the site, by Seawitch Salvage Inc. and others, led to serious environmental problems, including several fires, pollution pouring into the harbor and workers mishandling asbestos.

The owner of Seawitch Salvage, Kerry L. Ellis, was convicted in May 1997 of federal safety and environmental violations.

"The USS Coral Sea was dismantled by Seawitch Salvage at this site, before the work was shut down because of environmental problems." said Deidre McCabe, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration.

"But several other salvage companies also worked there." McCabe said, including Don Jon Inc. None of them told the state they were handling explosives.

"The U.S. Navy was overseeing the dismantling of this ship throughout the entire process." McCabe said. "The MPA didn't get involved until afterward, in 2000. The MPA had nothing to do with the shipbreaking."

Explosives experts from the U.S. Army's Fort McNair in Washington will test the bombs to see whether they are active, then they will remove and destroy or dismantle them, Prioleau said.

Robert Keith, author of Baltimore Harbor: a Picture His tory, said he found it unlikely that the bombs would have come from the construction from 1941 to 1945 of the Liberty Ships because these vessels did not carry aerial bombs.

It is more likely that the bombs came from the Coral Sea, because it was an aircraft carrier, or from one of several military ships dismantled nearby, Keith said:

"This is a major site because of the Liberty Ships - but these bombs probably had nothing to do with the Liberty Ships."

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