Origins of bombs under investigation

State, military officials open criminal inquiry

devices safely removed

May 07, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Authorities opened a criminal investigation yesterday to determine who buried 12 explosives -- including a fat 4,000-pound bomb of the kind dropped from airplanes during World War II -- at a former military shipyard along the water in remote southern Baltimore.

But the day seemed to yield as many questions as answers, with military officials suggesting some of the bombs had been manufactured during different periods, one as late as the Vietnam War. And they said the bombs could have been buried on the industrial site in Fairfield as recently as the mid-1990s.

None of the weapons, which were uncovered by construction workers Wednesday morning, had a working detonator. This means they posed little risk of blowing up as they were inspected by Army bomb squads using high-tech gamma-ray equipment.

State officials, who closed the nearby Harbor Tunnel Thruway and restricted water access to the Inner Harbor late Wednesday night, ended the restrictions by early yesterday morning, in time for the rush hour along Interstate 895.

Soldiers then strapped the bombs to the back of a flatbed truck and drove them to Aberdeen Proving Ground, where they are being destroyed.

Ned Christensen, a spokesman for the Army's Fort Myer in Arlington, Va., said that bomb squad experts called to the waterfront from the Army's 767th Ordnance Detachment believe many of the explosives were buried from 1993 to 1996.

"These bombs did not have detonators, but they are still volatile, so you have to handle them very carefully," he said. "They looked like somebody put them in a hole during the 1990s, as far as anybody can determine."

It was during this period that the 10-acre parcel of industrial land, now the property of the Maryland Port Administration, was owned by a scrap company controlled by the family of Kerry L. Ellis Sr. He made money disassembling and selling parts from the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea and other military ships.

Ellis, a local businessman, was sentenced to two years in prison in 1998 on federal charges of mishandling pollution at the site and failing to protect his workers from asbestos. He died of a heart attack in prison.

But Jane F. Barrett, who prosecuted the case for the U.S. attorney's office, said yesterday that she doubts Ellis was responsible for burying the bombs.

Barrett said that while the contractor was sloppy with asbestos and other pollutants, the Navy was careful to strip all of its vessels of weapons before turning them over to ship scrappers.

"They would not be taking these vessels to the scrap yard with any ammunition on them," said Barrett. "We talked to almost every worker who scrapped that vessel [the Coral Sea], and we heard nothing about anybody burying anything."

More likely, Barrett guessed, is that someone who used the shipyard before the 1990s -- perhaps during the World War II period -- buried the weapons.

On land just east of the site at 3000 Childs St., the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard Inc. from 1941 to 1945 employed more than 30,000 workers to build 384 lightly armed cargo vessels called Liberty Ships.

Steve Medura, a retired longshoreman who worked at the Fairfield docks from 1962 to 1997, said his father, also a longshoreman, loaded bombs onto Liberty Ships for transport to Europe at what was called "ammunition pier" near the site during World War II.

"They would load heavy bombs and other explosives onto the ships, and it was a hazardous job," Medura said. "Back then, it wasn't unusual, if they didn't want inoperative munition, or chemicals or something else, they'd just throw it overboard or bury it in the ground."

After the war, the Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyard was converted into ship scrapping operations. The Patapsco Scrap Yard at Fairfield dismantled at least 20 ships, including tankers and aircraft carriers.

Bryon N. Johnston Jr., director of media relations for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said it's not clear who buried the bombs. But he said state and military officials are conducting a criminal investigation because it's illegal to dump such dangerous material.

"There are procedures that have to be followed in disposing of military ordnance, and we are trying to find out who did this," said Johnston. "We are in touch with federal prosecutors and are treating the site as a crime scene."

The Maryland Port Administration bought the polluted land in November 2000 for $885,000. On Dec. 3, 2003, the state Board of Public Works approved a $2.3 million contract to Potts & Callahan to clean up the property.

State officials intend to pave the land and perhaps lease it to a company that wants to store vehicles shipped to the port from overseas.

Darlene Frank, director of communications for the Maryland Port Administration, said yesterday that state officials can't continue their work cleaning up the property until the military certifies it is safe.

After a contractor operating a backhoe dug up the bombs Wednesday morning, he called state officials -- who summoned two teams of military bomb experts.

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