THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Heightened tensions keep city bomb squad on the alert

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / June 21, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

The call came in on a weekday morning: There was a suspicious-looking box outside the World Trade Center in South Boston. Within minutes, the city and State Police bomb squads, with dogs, had shut down buildings and closed off nearby streets.

Two hours later, they found there was no cause for alarm. Inside the box was a company’s promotional materials.

Since the failed car bomb attempt in New York’s Times Square on May 1, police around New England have responded to numerous high-profile bomb scares — from the tense nine-hour shutdown of several Portsmouth, N.H., streets as authorities searched a passenger bus, to, more recently, an investigation of a small suitcase on the sidewalk outside Trinity Place in Boston. All turned out to be false.

The heightened tension has put a new focus on the Boston Police Department’s bomb squad.

Over the last six years, the city’s bomb squad has been sent out to more than 1,400 calls. They have faced just four live explosives — three homemade pipe bombs and a caustic bomb — and nothing on the scale of the device that forced New York City police to evacuate Times Square.

Still, every call about an abandoned knapsack or cooler must receive the full attention of the 15-member squad.

“We’ve opened up someone’s lunch box, and it turns out it’s a tuna fish sandwich,’’ said Sergeant Chris Connolly of the Boston Police Department’s bomb squad. However, he said, “If we didn’t do anything, and it turned out to be something, and we didn’t react . . .’’

The squad trains twice a month, once with the FBI, with various scenarios meant to sharpen their responses.

On one recent Wednesday, about 10 bomb squad officers drove out to Moon Island and met at a rocky field off the road. They rolled out a 30-foot long, sleek black truck as their command post.

About 100 yards away was a blue, battered Ford. Inside it were two propane tanks and a gas canister. The simulated bomb was developed by a sergeant on the squad for the purpose of training the other officers on how to disarm and dismantle such a device. This was a new exercise, Connolly explained, and one meant to parallel the car bomb in Times Square.

For nearly three hours, the officers worked to figure out the best way to neutralize the device. First, they used a small robot with caterpillar wheels and a slight resemblance to the lovable movie robot Wall-E.

From the truck, Officer James Parker deftly controlled the robot by using a series of knobs and buttons, and watched on the screen as he manipulated the machine to open car doors.

The officers then sent in a bigger robot, nicknamed Slick, which is capable of moving heavy objects and could pull a vest full of explosives off a suicide bomber — assuming the bomber was not struggling.

In this case, Slick was used to remove the gas canister and propane tanks from the car and place them far from one another.

Officer Francis Deary, a 7-year veteran of the squad, then donned a 90-pound, olive-colored suit with the help of two other officers. The suit cannot save an officer next to an exploding car bomb, but it helps protects officers walking to and from a bomb site.

An EMT stood by in case Deary overheated in the Kevlar suit on a hot day. But more than heat, Deary dreaded the possibility of an insect slithering inside it. “I hate bugs,’’ he said, shuddering.

He walked to the car, making sure it was clear of any other potential explosives, then returned to the command post. When his fellow officers removed the suit, Deary was drenched in sweat.

Police say the job is tougher not just because of the ever-evolving technology and training, but because it has become easier for people to build an improvised explosive devices by finding instructions online.

“The Internet, in all its wondrous powers,has not helped us necessarily, and YouTube is even worse,’’ said State Police Sergeant William Qualls, who has served on that agency’s bomb squad for 12 years.

Qualls said his unit responds to reports of IEDs, such as pipe bombs, every 10 days.

In 1998, the unit disarmed a remote controlled bomb left in a busy area in New Bedford, Qualls said. The bomber was never caught.

But most of the devices are made by pranksters eager to watch something blow up, he said, and State Police have been pushing for the Legislature to impose stricter penalties against such acts.

The equipment that police bomb squads rely on has evolved dramatically since the Boston unit was formed in 1971.

When Stephen Chin came to the squad 19 years ago, the unit operated out of a bread van that had been painted blue and white. The officers all shared one suit.

“We were the robots,’’ Chin said, jerking his arms like an android.

Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything. With federal money pouring into major city departments for antiterrorism initiatives, the department suddenly had access to equipment that was never available before.

In 2007, Boston police were approved for about $800,000 in federal grants for new equipment, including five bomb suits, the truck — which cost more than $356,000— two $185,000 robots, and a $56,000 X-ray machine.

The State Police bomb squad, which responded to 1,000 calls last year, has a robot and a suit for each of the 11 troopers in the unit.

It is a huge expense, but worth it, said Allan Roscoe, professor of terrorism and counterterrorism at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.

“Do we send Officer Jones to go up and open the package himself and expend that life?’’ he said. “There comes a time and you just use it once, and it proves that it was money well spent.’’

In Boston, the bomb squad keeps a picture of Officer Jeremiah Hurley, who was killed in 1991 after a bomb he was trying to disarm went off, prominently displayed in the office.

Said Connolly, “It’s there as a constant reminder of what can happen.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

Connect with Boston.com

Twitter Follow us on @BostonUpdate, other Twitter accounts