- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2003

A large basalt mountain just off Interstate 25 marks a frontier in America's war against terrorism. Marked with a large chalk "M" for a former mining school in the foothills below, Socorro Peak sits on former lead, silver and copper mines. Behind it is a 40-square-mile no-man's land of juniper and pinon trees that are on the front lines of America's high-stakes security drama.
For the firefighters and police officers who go there, their mission is clear: learn to investigate bomb explosions and related mayhem that could become part of the American landscape.
It's a future laden with payback for any American attack on Iraq that, according to one military columnist, "will surely activate thousands of Arab kamikazes coiled like rattlesnakes, waiting to strike us from 'sea to shining sea.'"
In case of reprisals, the battening down of hatches has fallen to several agencies, including the Response to Terrorist Bombing school in Socorro, directed by principal investigator Van Romero.
"What's happening in Israel is what we're looking at here," he said. "The suicide bomber is a very real threat. It is something we are planning for in the near future."
There is a yearlong waiting list for these weeklong classes in New Mexico's sagebrush country. Training sessions for the country's only large explosives-training program have increased fourfold since the September 11 attacks for droves of "first responders" people who show up first at accident or crime scenes.
Overseen by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, better known as New Mexico Tech, it employs 50 staff members teaching two classes a week of 35 to 40 students each. The demand is such that classes are slated for 50 weeks a year, even during holidays. Its Justice Department funding has skyrocketed from $3 million when the program began in 1998 to $30 million for 2003.
With help from Israeli military manuals, U.S. firefighters and police are taught how to detect and isolate a potential suicide bomber. Technicians from around the country have taught responders how to spot booby traps in places such as methamphetamine labs; how to deal with the carnage from letter, package and car bombs; and how to watch for bombs a year ago at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Six of the hundreds of the New York firefighters and police officers killed on September 11, 2001, were also trained at the Response to Terrorist Bombing school. Although the first thing responders must do is figure out whether the building they are entering is safe, there was no precedent for judging the effect of an airliner on towers of more than 100 stories.
"These guys are heroes," Mr. Romero said. "We educate them and tell them what the hazards are, but when they are at the scene, they have to figure out whether to go into that building or not. They know their lives depend on this, and they won't let their teachers gloss over it."
In the beginning
Southern New Mexico is a sea of military activity and research. At Hollomon Air Force Base in Alamogordo, stealth fighters are stored and 3,000 Luftwaffe fighter pilots train there under a U.S.-German cooperative program. Just south of White Sands, a vast Army missile range, stands Fort Bliss, an Army base in El Paso just over the Texas border.
There also are several Air Force bases: Kirtland in Albuquerque, Cannon in Clovis and the defunct Walker Air Force Base in Roswell, where military pilots still practice their landings and commercial airlines store their extra planes.
New Mexico's desert expanses, clean air and relative isolation have made it the perfect spot for secret military installations, such as the research labs in Los Alamos dedicated to developing the atomic bomb during World War II. During this era, Albuquerque physicist E.J. Workman founded the Energetic Materials Research and Training Center, which developed proximity fuses (for bombs) to deflect kamikaze planes.
In 1947, he moved to Socorro, a small, dusty town about 60 miles south of Albuquerque, and continued his research at the mining school. He eventually became its president, introducing courses in science, math, physics and engineering. More recently, "direct energy warfare" (laser weapons and microwaves) classes have been introduced on the manicured campus, a sea of green in a region that gets an average of 8 inches of rain a year.
Some of its 1,800 students haul lime 3,000 feet up Socorro Peak each fall to repaint the "M" and kick off a golf tournament from the summit. But the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that killed 168 persons and wounded 500 was a wake-up call for everyone, including New Mexico Tech, says Mr. Romero, who is also research vice president for the college.
New Mexico Tech became part of a domestic-preparedness consortium with two other universities, a bomb-test site in Nevada and the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Ala., to figure out a response to potential nuclear, chemical and biological attacks.
The Department of Justice commissioned New Mexico Tech to train firefighters and police officials first on the scene of a bomb explosion; how to recognize the type of bomb and whether there's a second explosive ready to detonate. The latter technique, which is what's known as "bait and wait," has been used against Israelis by Middle Eastern terrorists with devastating effects.
Americans are no strangers to explosives, Mr. Romero says, as 4 billion pounds of them are used each year for projects like road construction. When terrorists set out to destroy a building preferably with people in it the explosive of choice is not dynamite but ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that only costs 19 cents a pound. Mixed with diesel fuel, it becomes an explosive. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh used a truckload of 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Trainers in Socorro typically use 300 pounds to 500 pounds of the explosive, although they've used up to 20,000 pounds to try to replicate the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 U.S. servicemen and injured hundreds of people.
"After September 11, it was imperative we get people trained," Mr. Romero said. "There are 5 million first responders in the United States. Now we're training the trainers."
Learning about explosives
The most intensive day of the bombing school comes on a Thursday, when trainees are bused into desolate hill country behind Socorro. About 30 bomb-test sites are hidden in various canyons, and to date the project has detonated millions of pounds of bombs in the elk and mountain lion habitat.
During one bomb-test session, a variety of trainers from police and fire squads around the country were first given a lecture on explosives.
Ten boxes of ammonium nitrate, doused with fuel oil, can fit into a car trunk, they were told, as they fingered pink-colored pellets in the trunk of an old black sedan. Trainers joked they had depleted the local junkyard in order to get enough vehicles to blow up.
"What do you need to complete this?" one asked the class.
"A booster," they replied in unison, referring to the explosive needed to detonate the bomb.
Nearby are some 20-foot by 20-foot wooden structures and a reinforced concrete wall built to show how a simple car explosion can affect nearby buildings. It is one of 100 structures built each year by technicians at New Mexico Tech for the purpose of being blown up. The same crews also build different kinds of loading docks to replicate those popular terrorist targets. They are then bombed to ascertain what sort of construction is the safest.
James Petty, a paramedic with the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health, pointed out one of the largest oil refineries in the Western Hemisphere was in St. Croix. In case of a terrorist attack, he would be responding.
"That could be a target," he said, "so since September 11, we've put together a team of four different government agencies."
Trainees were taken a few hundred yards away to two other makeshift buildings, one of which has a blasted-out room with furniture askew. This, the instructor told them, was the scene of a letter bomb. The giveaway was the square hole in the desk where the bomb went through. The dummy sitting at the desk lost a foot.
But a real person next to a letter bomb with 1 ounce worth of explosives would barely survive it. Moreover, his eardrums would burst. In a normal explosion, air quickly compresses, leaving the lungs and eardrums at most risk since both are filled with air. Any more than an extra pound of sudden pressure known as a pressure pulse severely damages the eardrums.
At 10 pounds per square inch, buildings start to tumble.
The trainees were then taken into a second room where a package bomb in the form of a 2-ounce plastic explosive shaped like a sheet and slipped into a Fed Ex envelope has gone off. In this case, the dummy was shredded, windows were blown out and the furniture was in pieces. A wall had buckled.
The students were silent.
"When you see the hands-on stuff," said Baltimore County firefighter Michael L. Szczesniakowski, "it hits home a lot more."
Going boom
A large barrel hoisted on a pole was pointed upward, signifying an explosion was imminent. The class piled into a van and drove up a steep hill to a bunker outfitted with a periscope of reflected mirrors so observers don't get hit by any flying debris. Because it is unrestricted airspace there, instructors must first watch for any low-flying planes, as debris can travel upwards of a few thousand feet.
Just before the explosion, a siren went off. Suddenly a brief spurt of flame shot up. A large gray cloud blossomed and a boom filled the air as formerly solid material became high-velocity gases. A perceivable shock wave made the ground tremble.
"If that's 500 pounds, imagine looking for the evidence in a 4,800-pound bomb," one man said.
"It'd be like looking for postage stamps," replied another.
Suddenly a rock sailed over their heads. The explosion has flung it more than 1,100 feet their way.
"That's a freaking missile out there," someone shouted.
The trainees returned to the site, gingerly picking their way about blackened metal car parts. Instructions were to find a tire rim or anything that can give a hint of what was blown up. The object of the search was the engine, which has a VIN (vehicle identification number) on it that identifies where the vehicle was sold and who bought it.
Then trainees were told to establish a crime-scene perimeter that is half as far from where the largest projectile hit. One part of the blackened frame was 300 feet away.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we've got a crater here," said instructor John Clark, pointing to the epicenter, "and physical evidence down by the vehicles. If a piece of evidence is 1,000 feet out, what is your perimeter?"
"Fifteen hundred feet," they responded.
"You can see there's very little left of this car from 500 pounds," said Mr. Clark, a retired Oklahoma City police officer. "You can imagine the effect from 4,800 pounds."
Instructor Jon Sandberg, a bomb technician from Port Orchard, Wash., quizzed them next.
"What sort of hazards do you look for?" he asked, referring to hazards encountered by rescue personnel at a bomb scene.
"Inhalation, injection, absorption, ingestion," the group replied. Dangerous airborne particles are typically common after a bomb blast.
"But you have to look out for No. 1," Mr. Sandberg reminded them, "because you can't rescue anyone if you are injured or killed."
Months later in Baltimore, Mr. Szczesniakowski said he has not had to deal with terrorists since his New Mexico visit, but he has put his knowledge to use when encountering explosions from homemade fireworks, meth labs and pipe bombs.
"It was an eye-opener," he said of the training. "You can see the large amount of damage a little amount of explosives can do."

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