Story By Duncan Adams [email protected]
Video By Aaron Martin WSLS
The FBI and Virginia State Police blew stuff up Wednesday in Botetourt County. The progression started with “flash” and “bam!” The intensity increased to “blam!” and then “boom!” And for the finale there were two separate “ka-booms!”
as bomb experts from the bureau detonated devices that shredded and burned one car and blew another to jagged pieces that arced gracefully into the sky before crashing to earth. The audience included law enforcement officers and fire and rescue departments from around Southwest and Southside Virginia, representatives from at least one commercial seller of conventional explosives, a professor and others.
The FBI has been holding similar training sessions for a few years, according to Doug Fender, an agent and bomb technician for the bureau who was at the scene Wednesday afternoon. The message was sobering. Two long folding tables displayed a variety of over-the-counter materials that could become bomb components. The FBI asked that they not be identified in news reports.
FBI Agent Tom Adams said the bureau has been working with first responders, the academic community, representatives from chemical industries and retailers from home improvement and sporting goods stores to “get them to understand the threat that’s out there.”
Lt. Jeffrey Stritesky of the Botetourt County Sheriff’s Office helped organize the daylong training session. It began with instruction at the Greenfield Education and Training Center and ended with the explosives demonstration at the sheriff’s department’s firing range off Catawba Road. Stritesky said the workshop helped alert participants how to identify suspicious behaviors, materials and purchases. He said the bureau worries that a person working alone, a “lone wolf,” or a few people working in conspiracy could use common items to create and detonate deadly explosives.
Timothy McVeigh, the bomber in 1995 of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, was mentioned more than once during the afternoon demonstration. And a mix of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil was used to blow up the second car. Both vehicles were donated. David Firestone, a division chief for Botetourt County Fire and Rescue, said the instruction and demonstrations Wednesday will help emergency personnel “know what to look for in terms of bomb components you might run into in the field.”
FBI Agent Jeremy Wells participated in the training session, traveling down from the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center at Quantico. The center studies examples of improvised explosive devices used in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan to understand how they work and how to try to defend against them. Wells said “explosively formed projectiles” create large bulletlike projectiles that can penetrate steel armor.
One such EFP, combined with a pipe bomb, was used Wednesday to shred the first car. Wells later showed a 1-inch-thick steel plate that the projectile had passed through, “like butter,” as Stritesky said.
The demonstrations included an explosion Fender likened to the special effects created by Hollywood. Four milk jugs contained about half a gallon of gasoline each. An explosive material was added. And the resulting detonation, one of the day’s most memorable, produced a mushrooming fire ball, a shock wave and a heat wave. Fender said sharing knowledge about what to look for – in vehicles, homes and elsewhere and in retail purchases – creates what he called “trip wires” that help alert authorities of suspicious materials and behavior inside the United States.
Bad guys have been caught as a result, he said. “There are some success stories you don’t hear about,” Fender said.