S.O.R.T.I.E. - Special Operations Rescue Tactical Interdiction Expeditions

Underwater Explosive Recovery

By Rockie J. Yardley

Rockie Yardley (left) and another UERS practicing helicopter insertion exercises.

Undoubtedly, the most hazardous task performed by an Underwater Search and Recovery Team is the retrieval of explosives or military ordnance that have been placed, discarded, or hidden underwater. Teams or individuals called upon to perform these extremely hazardous operations have been put in harm’s way over the years, unless they possess extensive training as bomb disposal technicians. You wouldn’t send a diver who is not a bomb disposal technician to retrieve a pipe bomb or hand-grenade on land would you? But, if you take those same explosive items, throw them in eight feet of water, that diver now becomes an explosive recovery specialist. It is extremely difficult for an untrained individual to correctly identify certain types of explosives, military ordnance, or improvised explosive devices on land by sight. Imagine trying to identify explosives in black water by touch, wearing neoprene gloves. When searching underwater for victims or evidence, a diver is confident they won’t hurt him/her. Explosives are a different story. If handled improperly, they can detonate and end a life.

But who else is going to recover these items so hazardous to swimmers and fishermen? Excluding the military, no other agency has established recognized teams or individuals with the expertise and equipment, let alone the training, necessary to handle such specialized operations. Due to various legal issues, military personnel, including Navy explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) divers, are not allowed to perform civil law enforcement duties. In the tragic TWA Flight 800 incident however, U.S. Navy Divers did work alongside local public safety dive teams in the heroic search and recovery of victims and evidence. This was necessary due to the magnitude of the operation, depth of the recovery, and the demand for such a large number of highly trained and equipped specialized divers.

In cases involving explosives investigated by local, county, or state law enforcement agencies, such as a booby-trapped pipe bomb thrown into a farm pond by a scared bomb builder trying to hide the evidence, who performs the search and recovery operation? In the past, it has been a public safety or volunteer dive team or a bomb disposal technician who just happens to be a sport diver. In these situations, either a black water qualified search and recovery dive team who has little or no training with explosives, or a bomb disposal technician with little or no training in black water diving, has been retrieving these items. In either case, untrained individuals have been performing these hazardous tasks. This is an extremely dangerous situation where a diver is likely to be injured or killed, whereupon the lawsuits will surely follow.

A new program has been developed to provide qualified personnel who are properly trained and equipped to assist public safety and volunteer dive teams who locate or are called upon to recover these extremely hazardous underwater explosive type devices or military ordnance. This program is the “Underwater Explosive Recovery Specialist Course” or “UERS.” The first class was held October 1996. The need for such a course was realized while attending an Underwater Search and Recovery Course. The instructor stated that if a member of his team, while recovering a vehicle or other evidence underwater, discovered explosives, they would get out of the water. When asked whom does a person turn the situation over to, the instructor replied that he didn’t know. Later, many local, state, and federal agencies were contacted and each said they were not aware of any non-military underwater explosive recovery capability in existence.

This copyrighted course, recognized by the International Association of Bomb Disposal Technicians and Investigators (IABTI), was developed and is coordinated by the Edmond Oklahoma Police Department’s Underwater Search and Recovery Team and their Explosive Disposal Unit. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), who assisted in the development of the course, provides instruction, guidance and assistance. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Civil Aeromedical Institute provide further assistance. Valuable underwater explosive render-safe techniques were adopted from Canadian Explosive Recovery Trained Divers of the Ontario Provincial Police, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Niagara Police.

Students attending this course must meet the following requirements:
#1.Full time employee of a local, state or federal law enforcement agency, fire department, or are an active duty military personnel.
#2 .Graduate of the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School or a military E.O.D. training course.
#3.Certified SCUBA Diver.
#4.Advanced certification in a nationally recognized Dive Rescue or SLAM (SCUBA Life Saving and Accident Management) Course. Students are instructed and train in the following areas:
#1.U/W Explosive Search Techniques.
#2.U/W Post Blast Investigations. (Search and Recovery)
#3.U/W Explosive Remote Recovery

Physiological Hazards From Underwater Explosions
On land when a blast occurs, injury and death can occur from three main causes: projectiles, over-pressure, and heat. Special kevlar bomb disposal suits and helmets are worn to protect the bomb disposal technician from these hazards. Underwater, when a blast occurs, projectiles and heat are not as serious a concern. The projectiles will be slowed down greatly and only travel a short distance due to the viscosity of water. The main concern about an underwater blast is the over-pressure shock wave. On land, a great deal of the over-pressure shock wave will go around or bounce off the body. Additionally, air can be compressed whereas water cannot. Underwater, since the body is the same density as water, the shock wave will pass directly through the body. As it does, it will rupture hollow organs such as the lungs and bowels.

Under normal conditions, the human body can withstand a maximum shock wave of 50 psi. From that point to 300 psi, injury will take place. Over 300 psi, death can and will occur. Using a one pound (0.4 54 kg) charge of explosive as a test standard, if detonated underwater, a completely submerged diver would need to be at least 72 yards (69 meters) away from that blast to be struck by a shock wave of less than 50 psi.

Diver Safety Equipment
To limit the shock wave from passing from the water through the body, certain precautions can be taken. One such precaution would be a dry suit with an insulated garment between the suit and the diver’s skin. This air space will greatly reduce the shock wave reaching the body. Also beneficial to the diver is a full diving helmet, such as the Kirby Morgan Superlite 17C. This provides protection to the sinus cavities, ears, and eyes of the diver if a detonation occurs. How much protection a dry suit and full diving helmet provide depends on how close the diver is to the detonation. If an explosion occurs underwater, in close proximity to a completely submerged diver, then in all likelihood serious injury or death will occur. This shock wave can be reduced, but never eliminated.

Specialized Procedures and Equipment
If possible and can be done safely, the explosives, military ordnance, or improvised explosive device (lED) should be remotely brought to shore to be rendered-safe or disposed of in a safer and more hospitable environment. This can be accomplished in one of two ways. One way, using a strong line, secured and originating from shore, is gently tied to the explosive or device by the UERS Diver, who then exits the water. The line should be a minimum of 200 feet (61 meters) in length. The larger the explosive, the longer the line should be. A minimum area of 300 feet (92 meters) around the explosive should be cleared of boats, citizens, the press, and fellow team members. Again, the larger the explosive, the larger your clear area should be. After determining that the area is safe and the diver is out of the water, an individual wearing bomb protective attire and helmet with face visor firmly grasps the line, never moving his/her hands, and slowly walks away from the water dragging the unseen item to shore. (Never “reel” the explosive in toward you while standing in one spot.) This will ensure a constant safe distance from that person to the explosive if a detonation does occur. The problem with dragging the item across the bottom is that it may become entangled underwater on rocks, branches, or debris.

The second method, which solves the problem identified in the first, is the use of specially designed remote filling lift bags, manufactured by SubSalve/Inflatable Technology of Providence, Rhode Island. These unique, low profile lift bags, after carefully being secured to the explosive by the UERS Diver who then exits the water, can be remotely filled from shore using a high pressure hose attached to a spare SCUBA cylinder. After the bag with the explosive attached rises to the surface, it can be pulled to shore using the same hose. The same procedure in dragging the item to shore as described in the first technique is used. When the explosive or hazardous device is on shore, it can be disposed of or rendered- safe by the UERS Diver or other qualified Bomb Disposal Technicians. Military ordnance, explosives, or improvised explosive devices (even if only suspected of being explosive) should never be carried out of the water. Only remote removal procedures should ever be used to retrieve these hazardous items.

If it is too dangerous for a diver to secure a line to an underwater explosive-type device for fear touching it may cause it to explode, it should either be remotely “blown in place” by detonating an explosive charge in close proximity to the item, or remotely rendered-safe. These techniques are highly confidential and dangerous procedures only taught and known to Underwater Explosive Recovery Specialists and Navy EOD Divers.

Military Ordnance and Explosive Safety Guidelines
#1. Only trained and qualified Bomb Disposal Technicians, who are certified SCUBA Divers with advanced training in Underwater Explosive Recovery, should ever attempt the recovery or render-safe of explosives, military ordnance, or improvised explosive devices (lED) that have been placed, discarded, or hidden underwater.
#2. Explosives, military ordnance, or lEDs located underwater that require recovery should only be retrieved using remote removal techniques and equipment when the diver is completely out of the water.
#3. Always assume the military ordnance or lED you are searching for or have located is armed, ready to detonate if moved or disturbed.
#4. Always assume the explosive, military ordnance, or lED you are searching for or have located has been tampered with or even booby-trapped.
#5. Never use metal detectors, electronic dive computers, or any other item of electronic equipment in an area where suspected or known military ordnance, explosives, lED or blasting caps may be.
#6. In conducting underwater post blast investigations, always assume that other undetonated, but armed, explosive devices or military ordnance may be in the area. It is becoming more prevalent that time delayed or booby-trapped secondary explosive devices are used against individuals who have responded to an area where a blast has already occurred.

Who To Call For Assistance
If you or your team has been asked to perform an underwater search and recover operation for explosive type items, or in the course of a dive you come across what you believe to be explosives, military ordnance, or an lED, contact the Bomb Disposal Unit that has jurisdiction in your area. Then contact the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. They have highly qualified Explosive Enforcement Officers (EEO) trained in Underwater Explosive Recovery, who will assist you or perform this type of hazardous underwater recovery. ATF also has a complete list of law enforcement or fire department personnel who are qualified Underwater Explosive Recovery Specialists in your area who can also assist you. In known or suspected incidents of domestic or foreign terrorism, immediately notify the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Rockie J. Yardley works for the Edmond Police Department in Edmond, Oklahoma. He is a Bomb Disposal Technician and a Technical Investigator He is also the developer, coordinator & instructor for the Underwater Explosive Recovery Specialist Course.