Underwater Explosions Course

Admin's Note: This is an archival article from our old website. The original date of publication is believed to be 2005.

Underwater Post Blast Investigations Course

Author: Dominique Evans-Bye

Research and Development Officer

Ventura County Sheriff’s SAR Dive Team

The Following is a hypothetical, yet plausible scenario: A dangerously disturbed person like a Timothy McVey or Theodore Kaczynski, builds and detonates a bomb planted in the local harbor, port, dam or lakeside recreational area. The tragic result is loss of life for many, loss of limbs for some and major property damage. A more serious scenario would be a terrorist group targeting these areas and incorporating secondary devices to take out the first responders.

What would be the role of the local dive team in these scenarios?  If asked, most team coordinators would reply that they would not put divers in the water to deal with a bomb, because that would be the Navy’s job. That would be the right answer, up to a point. The Navy Explosive Ordinance Detail (EOD) should, in many cases be the first team called to survey and render safe any unexploded ordinance. The Navy, however, does not task themselves with evidence collection for the purpose of building a case to prosecute the bad guys. Navy resources are stretched thin, and the diver who worked on the case one day may be deployed overseas the next. Navy divers cannot be counted on to appear on the witness stand to support a case.

Next; a team coordinator would usually state that the Federal Bureau of Investigations would move in and take over the case. Again, yes, the FBI would become involved, but the FBI recognizes that local dive teams are a resource that can be of much value to them in assisting in underwater evidence recovery. To maximize that resource, the FBI  Los Angeles Bomb Technician Program in association with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Arson-Explosives Detail and the Los Angeles Police Department Bomb Squad are currently in the process of training dive teams all over the country (and a few from foreign soil) in the process and techniques of underwater post blast investigations.  

The first thought that came to my mind when informed of the Underwater Post Blast Investigations Course, was how simple it must be to gather evidence from the scene to prove that a bomb exploded. The second thought was of the movie Speed, starring Keanu Reeves, who played a cop assigned to defuse a bomb that was placed on a bus. With cheesy movie lines running through my head, and wondering if the course would answer the lifelong question of whether to cut the red wire or the blue wire, I confirmed that I would participate in this five-day course.  

The course entailed a very thorough series of lectures on familiarization with bombs and explosives. Participants learned about the types of devices that may be used in varying situations. How, why, and where the devices are used were covered. The details behind historical bombings and explosions were given, including a presentation by Special Agent Bomb Technician, Morgan Bodie on the terrorist attack of the USS Cole. Bodie was involved in the investigation of that deadly event.

Circuitry and components of different types of bombs were covered in lecture, and then reinforced in the lab, with groups of participants tasked to build series and parallel circuits with various switches, timers and sensors.

Out at the range, teams got to inspect and handle det cord, blast caps, C4 and ANFO. The burn rate of different types of powder was demonstrated, and high and low explosive bombs were set up for participants to detonate (video).  Besides the fun, all the hands-on work proved to be very valuable when the focus of the class shifted to diving for evidence recovery. Now divers had a better idea of what they were looking (or feeling) for underwater. Tiny switches and wires that may have otherwise been passed over as trash, were carefully documented and collected.

Divers were split into groups and given three days at Lake Castaic to practice searching, documentation and collection procedures for bomb fragment and crime scene evidence. The last day culminated with a large scenario the entire group worked together on. During this time, representatives  from Harris Acoustics Products and Kongsberg, provided diver hand-held sonar and scanning sonar respectively for demonstration and for use in the exercises.  The hand-held sonar proved to be quite useful when with no set up time, it quickly located a boat used in the mock bombing. The scanning sonar imaged the search area allowing divers to be easily guided to targets with comm. gear. The images scanning sonar generates can be used as evidence documentation on a real search scene. The FBI also provided their Phantom 2 + 2 ROV to assist the search effort during the course.

Kongsberg scanning sonar shown on tripod, Diver hand-held sonar shown in right three photos.

After each day of diving, the teams brought the evidence they collected back to the lab to analyze the fragmentation to determine the type of bomb and the intent of the bomber. After all the evidence from the final scenario was collected, the groups worked together once back at the training center, to reconstruct what had occurred. A PowerPoint case presentation complete with topside and underwater photographs, diagrams and video was given to Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney, Michael Blake. Blake gave his input as to what a jury needs to hear and see in order to convict a suspect in a bombing case.

Participants in this course have the opportunity to train with dive teams across and outside of the USA. It is interesting to see some of the equipment other teams have and how they operate. Out-of-towners don’t have to worry about lack of activities each evening, after the classes are dismissed. The blast staff always had activities organized for those who were looking for something to do. The first night there was a talk at the Hyatt hotel (where most participants stayed) by NASA Mission Specialist Jim Riley, who was involved with the recovery effort of the space shuttle Columbia. The next evening everyone met across the street from the Hyatt at The Greens, which consists of three nine-hole professionally designed putting greens. The Greens is complete with restaurant, bar and beer girls to bring a cold one out on the course to anyone thirsty.  The other nights were almost as much fun with dinners and beverages and sea stories for all who were interested.

The FBI provides the Basic Underwater Post Blast Crime Scene Investigator’s course free of charge for qualified teams. Understanding that the Navy’s role will be limited in such an operation and that proper evidence documentation and collection are key to the prosecution, all dive teams should give serious thought to sending their members through the course.

Underwater Explosions Course Assorted Images.JPG