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Suspicious packages are bomb squad's business

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

It appeared to be a maroon-colored coffee can, sitting across the asphalt from the police officers. It seemed to be sitting there harmlessly, as if it had fallen from someone's grocery bag.

To the officers in the Clayton County Police Department's Bomb Squad, though, it wasn't a coffee can. It wasn't harmless, and it didn't look like it was just there by accident.

To them, it looked like a bomb.

"You have to consider everything a device until it's not a device," said Maj. Tom Israel, bomb squad commander and a member of the team since 1994. "It's a device," he said, "until it's proven not to be. Until I say it's not."

Anything, Israel said, can be a bomb, and everything that could be a bomb has to be treated as if it is.

At a training exercise Thursday morning, down by Rum Creek, below police department headquarters, the squad members responded to an old coffee can.

Recently, the squad responded to a cereal box covered in duct tape and what appeared to be Arabic writing, at the Clayton County courthouse. In another incident, it responded to a tattered box found sitting by a gas pump. Later, it was determined the box had simply fallen out of a trash can. But at the time, it had to be taken seriously, Israel said.

With a lot of equipment, and some training provided by federal Department of Homeland Security grants, the county's bomb squad responded to 24 suspicious packages in 2007. That number, Israel said, has ranged as high as 50, in a year, and the squad has dealt with eight actual explosives, and a collection of dangerous devices in the last decade.

"Slow and methodical," Israel said. "It's slow and methodical work. People always want us to hurry, hurry, hurry. That's not how it works. No. 1, for safety, and No. 2, to make sure we do everything right."

Squad member, Lt. Mike O'Shields, X-rayed the coffee can using a batter-powered, handheld X-ray machine, which beeped three times. Then the officer's huddled across the parking lot, analyzing the photograph. They stood by the long, black Bomb Squad RV, and O'Shields held the X-ray so the other officers could see. A black line, a wire, spooled across the top of the picture, and connected to two gray cylinders.

"All right," said Israel. "How many components do you see?"

O'Shields counted three. Israel said, no, count again. O'Shields counted four, and the circle of officers reached, without really saying it, a consensus that the coffee can was definitely suspicious, definitely a device, and they began to move to de-activate the "potential" bomb.

"Everything we do is 'render safe,'" Israel explained. "Our main goal is to make it safe, where it doesn't go 'high order.' That means explode."

O'Shields prepared a counter-charge, designed to split the device and separate the blasting cap from the dummy dynamite. Officer Gary Flinn, who leaves for federally-funded bomb school next month, unrolled a long yellow fuse and then moved to put on the "bomb suit," a green, Kevlar armor.

The squad practiced both methods of de-activating a device. O'Shields remotely set off a counter-charge. Then, Flinn walked up to a package. He was encased in a claustrophobia-inducing uniform, breathing through a filtered tube in asthmatic, Darth-Vader gasps.

Finn has been with the police department for 10 years, he said, but he joined the bomb squad a year ago, because he was looking for a challenge.

"It's not about a thrill or anything like that," he said, taking off the heavy suit with the help of three officers. "I like to be challenged."

Israel said that's pretty much why he tried out for the squad, back in '94. He was an officer and responded to a suspected pipe bomb in a mail box, and was impressed by the squad.

"They say you have to be crazy," he said. "We're not crazy, but we might be a little off."