At least 100 firefighters, policemen and other first responders from across Southeast Texas gathered at Beaumont’s city landfill for a booming explosive demonstration by the ATF on Tuesday, Sept. 24.
In a post 9/11 world where use of improvised explosives has become widespread, the ATF enrolled numerous Beaumont officers and other Southeast Texas first responders in an explosives class meant to instruct officers about the composition, dangers and effects of improvised explosives.
“With all of these recipes that are on the Internet, a lot of these commercial products can be used criminally,” said ATF Bomb Technician Johnie Green, who was teaching Tuesday’s class.
At least 200 yards behind Green were a number of improvised explosives made from almost every combustible household item Americans can find in their local grocery or home improvement store. First on the list was a bomb made of fertilizer like those widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Green was sure to warn would-be criminals about the dangers inherent in making homemade bombs. Unless you’re properly trained, a layman is likely to blow himself up.
“That’s a bad day,” he said, pointing to the fertilizer and an unnamed oxidizer that ignites the bomb. “You don’t want to have bad days.”
Those who didn’t have earplugs were in for a treat when Green came to the military-grade explosives.
“Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!” Green said before a 3, 2, 1 countdown and an accompanying, ear-piercing boom that reverberated through the entire area.
“How about the pressure? Did you feel it go through your body?” Green asked the students. “Imagine if you were half the distance. What is your ally? Distance and shielding.”
Green was also on scene with one of the worlds most dangerous liquid explosives, saying the clear, water-like liquid he was holding was exactly why most Americans were somewhat inconvenienced when boarding an aircraft after 9/11.
“If you wanna know why you can’t have liquids on an aircraft, this is it. This is one of the few totally liquid explosives. All it needs, once it’s mixed, is a detonator,” he said. “The company that fabricates this, both parts A and B, when they’re mixed, they look exactly like water. It’s very difficult to tell whether you’ve got a bottle of water, or actually have this high explosive. This is why you can’t have more than 3 ounces of liquid when you board an airplane.”
“I don’t know if you saw that thermal effect or could feel that blast in your body,” Green said. “But this is very powerful material.”
ATF Supervisory Special Agent Larry Sanders was on hand to witness the explosions, which included a letter bomb on a desk and an unsuspecting (and later, armless) mannequin sitting at the desk to demonstrate the explosive power of the letter bomb.
Sanders said it’s important for law enforcement to have the capability of recognizing such explosives using the training they received in Green’s class.
“The ability of a bomber is only hampered by their intelligence and creativity,” Sanders said. “So obviously, as technology has changed, so has the technology in the area, not just on the criminal side, but also in the explosive industry — it’s changed a lot. So keeping up with those trends is vital to the deterrence and investigation of these things.”
Part of the problem, Sanders and others said, is the legitimate need for explosives in industries such as mining and surveying.
“It’s a challenge because we have a lot of industries in this country that use the explosives for legitimate reasons,” Sanders said. “We find ourselves, in law enforcement, trying to meet the needs of those industries and also keep the public safe.”
BPD Chief Jimmy Singletary echoed Green and Sanders, saying criminals are getting smarter when it comes to improvised explosive devices.
“It seems like more and more bad guys, these criminals are using more and more explosives, low dose explosives that are easy to get,” he said.
Although some passengers are now allowed to take liquids onto planes — security measures that can sniff out explosive materials in security lines have become more widespread — Singletary said the inconvenience at airports is a small price to pay. He said government officials acted accordingly in the wake of 9/11.
“I don’t think they’ve gone too far,” Singletary said. “Most of the general public doesn’t realize what’s going on, what types of explosives people are using these days. I know it inconveniences people a lot, but I’d rather be inconvenienced than get blown up.”