Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Life on the Bomb Squad

by Tom Emch

There are nine San Francisco policemen, five sergeants and four patrolmen, who are uninsurable - because there are no available statistics on their life expectancy.

The nine are volunteers, highly trained in the extremely gentle art of disarming explosive devices. Like the kind that blew up Park Station and the Iranian Consulate.

Each knows the techniques developed by British bomb disposal officers during the London Blitz. And each knows that these World War II bomb disposal pioneers had a life expectancy of six months.

One day you may read about one of the men on the San Francisco bomb squad. Remember their names: Sergeant Burton J. Bishop, the leader, Sergeant Don Goad, Sergeant Tom O'Donnell, Sergeant William Pacheco, Sergeant Dave Winn, Patrolman Dale Boyd, Patrolman Robert Hulsey, Patrolman Fred Neville, Patrolman Ray Portue. All have other regular duties except Bishop who is bomb squad full-time.

Tonight, while you're safe in bed, or tomorrow while you're in your place of work, one of these men might lose an arm, an eye, or his life.

The phone rings , Judy Boyd answers it, and the ring is like a shriek in her ears. Her husband, Dale, is already out of bed and on his feet.

She says "It's for you, Dale, Operations".

Police operations gives Boyd the location of the "package," and a few details. He mumbles acknowledgement, hangs up.

Usually, a patrolman on the park and beach detail, this time he has a different sort of assignment: a suspected bomb. Boyd dresses quickly, grabs his "tool kit" and kisses his wife goodbye.

"I'll call you," he says.

Later, he does call, tells his wife the "package" was a false alarm, a shoe box on the door step at one of the consulates. It contained rocks.

Boyd is used to the false alarms, the lunch bucket at Candlestick Park that turns out to be just a mislaid lunch bucket, the paper bag at the Federal Building that contains garbage, the attache case at the Bank of America that contains harmless business papers.

But Judy Boyd has never gotten used to the phone ringing in the middle of the night "When he told me he had volunteered for the bomb squad, we discussed it."

"He told me about the training and all the precautions, and finally I told him it was his decision."

"But the phone is still bad, I find myself waiting for it to ring. And then it does. I wait up for him until he gets back. Couldn't sleep anyway."

Judy recalls one night in October 1971 when the phone rang for her husband and it wasn't a dud. The Iranian Consulate had just ben bombed rocking the Pacific Heights mansion off its foundation and damaging fifty homes in the area. Miraculously, the wife of the Consul General and her three children escaped injury.

Another night, shortly after that blast, she recalls the phone ringing again: "I guess we were jittery and when it rang we both reached for it and collided, bumped our heads. That broke the jitters and we started to laugh."

Patrolman Boyd doesn't laugh easily when he talks about his work.

"We were trained at the Presidio by the 87th EOD (Explosive Ordnance Detachment). Seven weeks, and we worked mostly on homemade stuff and pip bombs, dynamite, C-4 plastic, blasting caps, grenades..."

"We were taught disarming procedures, techniques I can't tell you about, except to say that the British developed most of them."

He says that before you get around to disarming a device, there are a few things that have to be done. You "isolate" the device: get the civilians out of the area, and perform some routine crime laboratory work, like searching for evidence, dusting for fingerprints, taking pictures."

"You do this even if the device looks like a brown paper lunch bag says Boyd. "Everything, every package is treated as if it is real, a live explosive. That's the only way to stay alive."

It's the way experts operate, although Boyd and his fellow bomb squad officers are fond of saying "There are no experts in this business."

They say this and recall, perhaps, the Army captain who trained them, Captain Gary Guest, deceased.

Captain Guest was alone in the 87th EOD workshop April 17, 1971 when an explosion occurred. He apparently had been working on a disarming technique when the explosive material detonated. Guest was dead on arrival at Letterman General Hospital.

"There are no live experts," says Sergeant Burton (Jim Bishop), head of the San Francisco bomb squad, "Only dead ones."

Bishop, in his office on the first floor of the Hall of Justice, lights up a cigarette and waves at a steel cabinet full of defused dynamite sticks, blasting caps, grenades, Viet Cong mortor shells and pipe bombs.

"That's just a few of them."

Bishop, owner of nine meritorious citations for heroism, explains the bomb squad has been in operation since July 1970 (a few months after the bombing of Park Station at which Sergeant Brian McDonnell was killed and several other officers were seriously injured.

His records show more than 1,350 bomb threats since formation of the squad and 24.5 "actuals". 'Actuals' are explosive devices either duds or disarmed by his squad.

"Business has picked up" he says. Now we're getting eight to one-hundred-twenty threats a month.

A chart of bomb squad activity on the wall of his office graphically describes the frequency of the threats. Thursday and Friday are prime days. Two o'clock in the afternoon is a prime time.

Bishop says the explosive device at Park Station was a pipe bomb containing black powder, hooked up to an alarm clock and a six volt battery. The bomb, containing small caliber bullets, was placed in a cardboard box filled with staples. It exploded at 10:45 pm February 16, 1970.

There is still a $38,000 uncollected reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of suspects involved in the crime.

The blast at Park Station shook the Police Department into action which resulted in the formation of the bomb squad and the bomb-proofing of district stations and new security procedures at the Hall of Justice.

The blast also made Jim Bishop the top bomb disposal officer in The City, a job that no one envies.

Bishop has had one brush with death and expects more. Several months after he was trained at the Presidio, on January 19, 1971, he responded to a call at the Old Federal Building, 50 Fulton Street. A package had been found containing two and a half pounds of live dynamite, a battery and a plain wrist watch.

"The device was set to explode at fifty-five minutes after the hour," Bishop recalls.

"I know I had a minimum of fifty-five minutes to disarm it, and possibly an hour and fifty-five minutes."

"I took it to the basement in a bucket and dismantled it. The battery connections were good, the watch was working. I found it had fifteen minutes to go."

There's another way to express the situation: Sergeant Bishop had fifteen minutes to live.

The sergeant is aware of the odds, and says of his job: "Someone has to do it."

He says this is in his apartment where he is waiting for the return of his wife of five months, a pretty blonde named Sheila.

The apartment has a kind of careless look, comfortable, but contemporary. Like the occupants may not be there forever. And Bishop himself strides through it restlessly, as if he is anxious for something to happen.

The phone rings, and it is his wife who says she'll be home shortly.
Sheila Bishop arrives and says quietly that she doesn't like to talk about her husband's job.

"During the day, he never calls me, so I don't know if he's out on a job or not. It does make me nervous at night when he goes out on a call. I wonder if he's going to come home. Stay awake. Wait for a phone call."

"No, I don't object," says Sheila "I don't think I should interfere with his job."

She seems to have a reservoir of quiet strength that enables her to accept a precarious married life... ("I wonder if he's going to come home")... to a demolitions man, a man she sometimes flares up to defend at cocktail parties.

Judy Boyd has the same problem. "When we're out socially," she says, "people will find out Dale works on the bomb squad, and they'll say 'You mean he volunteered'?

"Or they ask 'What possesses a man to want to disarm bombs.'"

She says that her two children, Laura, eleven and Kenny, Ten, both have been hassled in school. Poked fun at because their father is a cop.

"In some circles", she says, "people become uncomfortable when they learn Dale is a policeman, so we end up socializing mostly with other police families."

Boyd shrugs his shoulders and says, 'It's just easier talking to someone who knows something about your work."

When you work on a bomb squad, you have to keep up with your subject. In Sergeant Bishop's office there are bombing reports from other jurisdictions, reports from the National Bomb Data Center in Washington, D.C. There are FBI reports, training films to study.

Both Bishop and Boyd teach classes at the Police Academy, two hours a week. They give lectures to businessmen, bankers and tell them "Don't touch. Call the bomb squad."

Many large companies now have, as a result of these lectures, a floor warden, someone responsible for checking the premises at the beginning and end of the work day. The wardens are taught to look for characteristic packages, things out of place, like an attache case that normally isn't there.

This has increased the number of "false alarms," the suspicious packages reported to police, but in some cases it has saved lives.

When the bomb squad was detailed to the Soledad Trial, Bishop was called four times to inspect the women's lavatory. Each time there was a brown paper bag taped to the underside of a commode, and each time it was found to contain cottage cheese.

Boyd has gingerly opened packages that contained nothing but cracked crab shells. And once he dismantled an entire desk at the British Consulate to satisfy an official who had panicked because it was locked and it wasn't supposed to be.

Bishop once deftly cut into an attache case at a Bank of America and the owner came up to him and yelled: "Hey, what are you doing to my case?"

Says Bishop, "Here I was working on this thing for ten minutes and all the time thinking I was going to blow sky high. And all I could say to this guy was 'Sorry about that.'"

There's a certain amount of comedy in taking elaborate precautions to open a sack full of garbage, but the bomb squad men will tell you over and over: "That's the only way to stay alive."

Because some lunch buckets actually do contain explosives: some shoe boxes do contain pipe bombs, some brown paper bags do contain C-4 plastic. And that was seven sticks of dynamite on the roof of Mission Police Station last March.

The sticks were twenty-four inches long, three inches around and might have killed fifty to one-hundred men if they had gone off as set.

You can't joke away a package of live dynamite, or a pipe bomb filled with one inch staples, or some Underground newspaper that prints details on how to make homemade explosives.

"Treat every device as if it's alive," Bishop tells his men. Because someday they'll unwrap something they've never seen before.

That's way the sergeant wants the squad to have an annual refresher training at the Army's demolition school at Indianhead, Maryland, or at the bomb school at Redstone, Alabama.

"I feel I'm well trained," says Dale Boyd, "but, I'd like to go to Redstone."

There's a nagging worry in the mind of each of the bomb sqadders. And to each other they make a joke of it.

"We all talk about getting zapped," say Bishop. "We talk like we could get it tomorrow."

"I talk to Dale (Boyd) like that ... like it might be the last time I'll ever talk to him."

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle 1972