During the week of Oct. 22, 14 potentially explosive devices were sent to a number of Democratic leaders and influential figuresm as well as CNN’s office in New York City. In the aftermath of the interceptions of these bombs, the primary suspect is 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc of Aventura, Florida. The packages looked simple enough, with the only defining characteristics being that the manila envelopes the devices were sent in were wrapped in tape and bound with bubble wrap. Then arises the question of how a package becomes classified as a threat.
The idea that pops into many heads is that of sniffer dogs, based on their prevalence in movies and their ability to identify drugs on a person. However, Marc Lamberty, a retired bomb squad technician, refutes this by saying, “A dog is a [basic] search tool, and I’m above general search.” Though this may seem like a prideful remark, that doesn’t make it any less true. Dogs are used to find something hidden, not identify whether a hidden object is threatening or not.
The next logical course of action is also often seen in movies: bomb squads. And this is where movies find their mark. Standard protocol calls for a highly specialized technician, such as Lamberty, to assess the gravity of the situation and the nature of the package without touching the potential hazardous product.That’s as far as movies go in terms of their veracity and application in real life.
Though most movies show beads of sweat rolling down a technician’s face, as the technician hopelessly tries to decide whether to cut the blue wire or the red, a real-life technician uses a remotely controlled robot to relay high-quality images to the technician.
The first and possibly most important part of the process is the X-ray, which can reveal a lot about the package, according to Jimmie Oxley, a chemistry professor and co-director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center of Excellence for Explosives Detection, Mitigation and Response. In reference to the specific bombs that were sent the week of Oct. 22, X-rays helped determine that they were pipe bombs. Out of the 460 bomb squads in the United States, most, if not all of them, have X-ray available.
After the contents of a suspicious package are determined by X-rays, a series of chemical tests can help determine how to properly dispose of the package. Handheld kits for this detection method come preloaded with chemicals that change color based on the residue left over from the type of explosive device used. If there is even more residue, further tests can be run using ion scanners or even spectrometers, determining the movement of the molecules used in the device. To tackle the perpetual suspicion of a nuclear threat, responders also assess for radiation.
Moving forward from knowing the contents of the package, the threat can either be disabled or detonated in a controlled environment, which serves the same purpose as when a bomb explodes accidentally.
In both cases, shards of glass, bits of metal and pipes and further chemical residue can help determine how the bomb works and how it can be tackled next time a similar bomb comes to light.
In the case of the recent bomb threats, for example, the information from the first bomb was used to determine the nature of the subsequent bombs, and thus made it easier to dispose of all the devices. In the case of an explosion, however, since the threat has been negated, it can be safe to search for the holy grail of these investigations: fingerprints.
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