Sadly, bombs are now a part of everyday life. We read about explosions on the front pages of our newspapers most days. Bomb scares, bomb hoaxes and bomb threats are commonplace. But what about the unheralded people tasked with identifying and defusing bombs? Their stories of constant vigilance and crouching over packages that may or may not contain several pounds of explosive have rarely been told… until now.
ABC TV journalists Richard Esposito and Ted Bernstein were embedded with the New York bomb squad for an entire year. Bomb Squad, recently published, contains their experiences as they shadowed a Big Apple police team that has been in existence, in one form or another, for more than 100 years.
From the endless stream of call-outs to inspect suspicious packages to preparing for major public events and dealing with actual bombs, the book looks at the 33 people who make up the squad and details their day-to-day activities as well as looking back at key events in New York’s heritage from the past 100 years when bomb blasts shook the city.
Richard Esposito, pictured left, who is the homeland security reporter for ABC TV, answered our questions.
What was the nearest you actually came to live bomb during your time with the bomb squad?
“During our time with the squad, we came within several yards of devices, meaning small homemade hand grenades, and munitions, but not until the squad hand made sure they were ‘rendered safe.’ We were present during range controlled detonation of several devices.”
Going into your assignment with the squad, what were your expectations?
“What we had hoped for was a chance to understand who these men were, why they did what they did, and why, unlike so many others who brave excessive danger, they always chose to stay behind the scenes. We were satisfied at the end of the day that we came reasonably close to our goals, although it was exceedingly difficult to capture what made the squad members tick, so to speak.”
Were you surprised by the sheer number of incidents, real and false alarms, that the bomb squad handled during 12 months?
“It was staggering. So was the workload of the squad. Well over 90 or 95 per cent of the incidents were false alarms, but still, they had to get up and go, and afterwards sit down and type up reports.”
Were you able to put yourself in the mind of the people who were planting bombs?
“That wasn't really part of what we set out to do, although it is unavoidable to wonder not why, but who sets bombs. It is easy to find rationales - policies or personal for setting bombs. But to us, it was inconceivable to understand how someone could do so when dozens or hundreds of innocent people would be killed. If you visualize the carnage, it is hard to imagine someone wanting to cause it.”
What was the most surprising aspect of the bomb squad and its work?
“It was the discovery that their job was not to understand who was planting bombs, or to stop bombs from getting into their city, it was simply to act as the last line of defense when all else fails. It helps explain, when you think about it, why they can be such a small unit.”
How many other cities in the US have bomb squads?
“Several hundred US cities have bomb squads. In addition the federal Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives bureau has numerous bomb technicians as do various state police and sheriffs departments.”
How is the technology behind bombs changing?
“The technology changes, miniaturizes and what have you, based on the changes in society at large. So before cell phones became an essential part of everyone's life, there were beepers - those little pagers that we no longer see. Pagers where the devices used to set off bombs. Now cell phones are used to set off bombs.”
How effective are the heavy Kevlar suits in protecting an officer if a bomb explodes?
“Depending on the force of the bomb, a Kevlar suit can be remarkably effective. But really, distance and shielding are the keys to survival, which is why robots and disrupters (devices that shoot a high-powered stream of water at the bomb to dislodge the firing mechanism) are used whenever possible.”
Would you swap journalism for a job on the bomb squad?
“No. And I don't think there is a bomb technician who would swap with me either.”
It sounds as if the bomb squad’s low profile is quite deliberate – is this the case?
“Yes, in general they feel that the less said about their work and their tools and techniques the better. We tried to respect that while at the same time telling their story.”
[Find copies of Bomb Squad]