- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

RICHMOND | A Civil War relic hunter who was killed in an explosion in February was cleaning a cannonball when a spark ignited black powder within the ancient ordnance, according to a federal investigation concluded Monday.

Sam White, 53, was working on the 9-inch naval cannonball in the driveway of his suburban home with a wire-brush grinder, which ignited the powder, exploding the shell, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigation.

A 4-inch piece of shrapnel dug from the asphalt of the driveway contained evidence the shell had been made inert, either by Mr. White or the person who sold him the shell, said Bill Dunham, resident agent in charge of the agency’s Richmond office.

But naval shells were built to shield the powder from water and other elements, so all of the cannonball’s 3 or 4 pounds of black powder were not thoroughly flushed from the shell’s casing, Mr. Dunham said.

The explosion sent a 1- or 2-pound section of the shell hurtling from the Chester subdivision where Mr. White lived and through the roof of a house one-quarter of a mile away. Nobody else was injured in the Feb. 18 explosion.

Mr. Dunham said the investigation did not determine whether Mr. White had flushed the shell with water or if he had purchased the shell as inert.

“I don’t see any criminal responsibility,” he said.

Mr. White, a respected, widely known member of the Civil War relic hunting community, was working on a shell that dated to the 1850s or 1860s. In published accounts before his death, Mr. White estimated he had worked on 1,600 shells for collectors and museums.

Mr. White’s wife, Brenda, said she has “absolutely no clue” where her husband obtained the shell.

The death rocked the passionate fraternity of Civil War collectors and relic hunters, who search trash pits and river bottoms for munitions, clothing and buttons. They fear Mr. White’s death has inspired officials to destroy cannonballs that are found.

The Park Service did not immediately return a telephone message.

Explosives experts said Mr. White’s death was an extraordinary event and one rarely recorded since the end of the Civil War. But a U.S. Army explosives expert strongly disagreed that munitions from that period do not pose a modern threat.

“My position is that these old cannonballs, and any cannonball that has an energetic filler, are dangerous and potentially unstable,” said Jimmy L. Langley of the U.S. Army Technical Center for Explosives Safety in Oklahoma.

Mr. Dunham said 43 shells were taken from Mr. White’s home after the explosion and flushed of powder.

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