EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The letter-sized manila envelope is a bit heavy, appears to have oil stains and handwritten scribble some might construe as a rant. Despite these red flags and the extra postage, someone in a nondescript office in America decides to open it, and the results are devastating.
“Even a small amount of explosives can kill you,” says Daniel Trick, special agent and bomb tech team leader at the FBI field office in El Paso. “The public should contact (police) whenever they have reason to believe there might be an explosive threat. That can mean different things: suspicious packages, something that shows up at your door you were not expecting, or someone making threats.”
To illustrate the point, Trick this week set off a letter bomb inside a filing cabinet at a firing range in rural New Mexico. Observers a couple of hundred yards away felt the shockwave and later inspected the mangled metal spread several feet wide. In a real-world scenario, the metal could have gone into people ripping skin and internal organs; the shock could have broken someone’s back or neck and rattled brains against the skull.
All this from 112.5 grams of a plasticized sheet explosive.
The FBI would rather prevent these tragedies than investigate the unthinkable aftermath. FBI bomb techs in El Paso take to the streets at least once or twice a week in response to threats, and suspicious packages and to inspect concert and sporting event venues before the crowds show up. In the past year, the techs have dealt with only a couple of “live” pipe bombs in El Paso and Las Cruces, New Mexico.
“Certain devices we cannot safely disarm, we transport out of the city to a range and detonate the threat,” Trick said.
The bomb tech usually wears an 80-pound blast-protection suit that includes a Kevlar overall, trauma plates and a heavy helmet. The suit “takes a toll on you in the El Paso heat, but it’s for your own protection because generally there will be some sort of fragmentation, meaning someone put nails or metal in it and the pieces come at you after detonation at a very fast rate of speed.”
The FBI bomb techs train for up to two years before getting their field commission. They continue training at least once a week not only to sharpen skills but also to prepare for new threats.
“It’s like having a pet rattlesnake. It may not bite you for five years but it’s still a rattlesnake. At some point, it’s going to bite you if you’re not careful. Same thing with explosives,” he said.
Each tech is required to know how to assemble the most known explosive devices so they can disarm them.
Clandestine bombs made by disturbed, disgruntled individuals or crafted by criminals usually are activated by remote control, timers or, most commonly, by the victim triggering a trap. That could mean opening a box with a trip wire or ripping open a pressurized sealed envelope.
The FBI declined to discuss how its techs determine if a package, an abandoned backpack or another suspicious item is a threat or not. Likewise, they would not talk about the evaluation process for random bomb threats. But the bomb techs urge the public to call them instead of deciding for themselves what to do after receiving a threat or finding a suspicious package.
“Every time I go out there’s an email chain, the bomb call goes out national,” Trick said. “I’m deployed and do my thing as calm as possible. If you go out (agitated), that amps everybody else up and that’s not what we want in a bomb call. It’s a thinking man’s game; calm and methodical is better than fast and aggressive.”
Trick said he got involved with the FBI bomb team because of tragedies he witnessed in the military.
“When I was in Afghanistan I saw a bunch of guys get blown up and that was a very bad experience,” he said. “I realized there were a lot of guys that haven’t seen that and don’t know how bad it can be. So, if I can be the guy that prevents this from happening to other people, I would love to do that.”