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The Big-Bang Brotherhood

By John Balzar, John Balzar is a senior features writer for The Times.|September 21, 2003

A thousand lessons must be learned here. Then a thousand more. One of them is that metal can attract a spark of static electricity. And in the proximity of an unstable chemical like dynamite, even the tiniest of sparks could be the very last thing that happens in your life.

It bears notice that no one in this room is wearing a steel wristwatch.


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Might as well be as cautious as you can. Particularly if you've already thrown so many ordinary ideas of prudence to the wind.

It is 6 a.m. at the bunker-like building not far from Glendale, the morning shift for men and women suited up in Nomex black. They say there are two kinds of police officers on the Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad: those who are drawn to it, and those who cannot imagine it.

Crazy?

Look around the room. There is a swagger to these people, lots of muscle too. They greet each other with a kind of fraternal joshing that occurs among those who share a compact with peril. But crazy? Well, the world outside can be a crazy place. And to borrow an old wheeze, only the madness on the periphery can safeguard the sanity of the center. It wouldn't do if everyone flinched. So when the telephone rings here, it always sounds a spooky question: Is this the moment? Will one of them be called on to "go downrange"? To "make the lonely walk"? To "get on" a bomb? To peer at a rat's nest of slender wires, connected to a blinking LED that is hooked to a battery that is duct-taped to a doughy brick of C-4 with all those angry, agitated molecules eager to part company and bring down a building and everyone in it?

Joe Pau, three stripes up and one stripe down. It's a name that can stop a conversation, provided you've entered the fellowship of this nation's law enforcement bomb techs. With his big, rimless glasses, thinning hair, graying Groucho mustache, enlarging jowls and subtle but unmistakable saunter, a combat knife sewn into the back of his flak jacket, Pau is the ranking detective here, 26 years on the force, 21 in bombs. Some of the essential equipment now used nationwide was designed with help from Pau. The tactics and SOPs of the LAPD and other agencies similarly reflect his thinking.

On Monday morning, Pau begins the week with a muster. All of the important calls from the past seven days are reviewed. A hand grenade had brought out the squad. Also a bomb wrapped in a cardboard tube. Generically, they are called IEDs--improvised explosive devices. Were they handled properly?

"I'm a real pain in the ass about this," Pau reminds everyone.

The procedures for confronting bombs are almost as tricky as bombs themselves: Evacuations, which begin with a 300-foot ring around any suspected bomb and grow larger according to the threat, are seldom flexible. Likewise other procedures. But there has to be room for judgment too. Sometimes the clumsy bomb suit is a hazard when you approach a suspect device in a difficult location. Then you have to go downrange with nothing more than a puny flak jacket for protection. The meeting is a combined postgraduate exam in electronics, chemistry, physics and urban improv. How was the grenade determined to be harmless? What would have looked different if it wasn't? What can be said about the cardboard bomb leaking powder? Behind every bomb call are eerie layers of questions: Could the device have been booby-trapped? Might it have been a decoy to distract attention from a real bomb set nearby? Could the call have been a setup: A bomber making a dry run to watch how the police respond so they can be outwitted next time? The techs explain their moves, their thinking. What everyone wants to hear is whether Pau can find a flaw in their method.

Pau will retire at the end of the year. He is going to leave a hole in the LAPD. The lieutenant above him and the 20 men and one woman below him want to hear everything he knows. He hasn't seen it all, but he's seen more than almost anyone. He's seen the mangled corpse of his mentor on the floor after a failed attempt to defuse a double pipe bomb. He's walked downrange on a pickup truck parked on the street with 2,000 pounds of explosives, and he defused it. The LAPD reported it was the largest vehicle bomb ever "rendered safe" in the U.S.

If a tech missed something or didn't think of something, the bomb squad trusts Pau more than anybody to divine what it was. Let's not have any empty chairs at next Monday's muster.

Pau obliges them. He arrives most days a couple of hours before his shift to drink a cup of coffee and read a paperback, and to put his mind in whatever unfathomable, heightened state is necessary to face each day as if it's going to blow up in your face.

"I don't want to have to go tell their families that something happened because I screwed up," he says coldly.

It is a strange realization. But follow the bomb squad for a week, pull a couple of double shifts. These people who know best believe that Los Angeles, and other big cities in America, are safer because one man whom you've never heard of is cocky enough to believe that there's no bomb big enough or scary enough that it can't be conquered. If you do it right.

During a typical month, the LAPD bomb squad logs 110 calls. Sometimes this entails cruising out to a local middle school to pick up firecrackers that have been confiscated from a teenager. Often it's to investigate a suspicious briefcase, or package, or a misplaced toolbox or some other unaccountable item that has made someone uneasy in these uneasy times.

Occasionally it's a "good" call, the real thing--the kind of call that goes into the logbook highlighted in yellow. Maybe it's a galvanized pipe packed with explosive powder and nails, capped at both ends, wired to explode by a timer, or a motion detector, or by remote control, or by something else--a bomb meant to kill with a shock wave that travels three times as fast as a bullet and with shrapnel that can pierce a Mercedes sedan like so much tissue paper. Never entirely out of mind is the call that's bound to come someday--they expect it here, the same as we all do--the message that announces the arrival of Al Qaeda. The dirty bomb, the chemical bomb, the bio-bomb, the tanker-truck bomb, the God-knows-what bomb.

"We want people with big egos; people who are confident they can handle anything. Motivated people." Joe Pau is talking about this peculiar psychology that drives a person forward when everyone else withdraws. Police work is teamwork. Except here. This is the one job where you leave your partner and teammates sheltered behind a distant building. You alone wear the 80-pound bomb suit with its ceramic blast plates, and you alone shuffle down an alley with the LAPD brass gathering a block away and news helicopters filming every step from high above. Maybe 1,500 evacuees stand anxiously on the far perimeter, a knot in everyone's stomach, all those ears cocked with dread, while your own mind contracts around the checklist that you've gone through all those thousands of times, a catechism that includes not just everything you've been taught and all that you've learned and tried to imagine, but also that essential voice from deep in the brain stem that is your instinct: This cardboard box looks like thousands of other cardboard boxes cast into alleys, but it is also the one that makes your skin crawl and you cannot pull your eyes away as it draws you downrange and near.

Only later, they say, will you have time to let your heart race. By then you've probably sweated off five pounds in that claustrophobic suit.

It is an ominous sight. Three white sport utility vehicles scream code 3 down Sunset Boulevard at daybreak. With smoked windows and "Bomb Squad" markings, the vehicles do not advance in a file but spread out across the pavement, trying to make themselves seen, to push through the traffic, hoping to coax stubborn commuters over to the right. Some don't go willingly. A few drivers, when confronted with lights and sirens, panic and jam on their brakes.

Ron Capra, 18 years with the LAPD, 3 1/2 years on the bomb squad and many thousands of hours in the weight room, leads the way. This responsibility rotates, and it's his turn now. He has but two thoughts: Getting through traffic without causing an accident, and how to confront the bomb that awaits him. He has been given only a sketchy description and the location of the device. The checklist has begun. He will have a preliminary plan by the time he arrives. Maybe a couple of backup strategies too. He is silent. His face is expressionless, except for a flash of astonishment when another driver ignores the thunder bearing down. Perhaps the man in the Mazda thinks he's happened onto the filming of a movie. What fun.

Joe Pau already has made a private assessment of the threat and dismissed it with a one-word expletive. But that's not how he treats it. The first one that you take to be a fake just might be the one that was rigged to fool. Complacency kills. There are plenty of slogans repeated for the benefit of an outsider.

The convoy heaves up outside the LAPD's Hollywood Division headquarters. A furtive man had entered the lobby, asked to use the restroom and quickly left. A patrolman found a letter on the counter, next to the sink. It was addressed, "President Bush."

Capra interrogates the patrolman. How big is the letter? Does it have any bulges? Any stamps? Where is it positioned? Laden with detection and analysis gear, but not wearing a bomb suit this time, Capra pushes into the evacuated lobby and disappears into the men's room. Pau, who is the team supervisor, and a backup tech wait in the booking hall alongside two immodestly clothed women with runny mascara who are shackled to a bench.

Six minutes later Capra has assessed the letter as harmless and cut it open. It is only a rant. No threats against the president. No crime.

Breakfast?

Business is booming. This job is a blast. Have a dynamite day.

Ho-ho. Bomb squad humor.

The city is better prepared now than before 9/11. That seems to be the bomb squad consensus. Equipment has flooded into police departments, more every month. Detection devices. Protection suits. Communications equipment. The pace of specialty schooling by the FBI and military has intensified. Bomb schools. Hazmat schools. The LAPD is expanding its kennel of explosive-sniffing dogs--animals with noses 100 times, or maybe 1,000 times, keener than any machine. One LAPD tech has traveled repeatedly to Israel to learn what he can of suicide bombers. Others are trying to keep abreast of what we now call weapons of mass destruction.

The LAPD bomb squad is 53 years old, and the world has never looked darker.

Maybe the intelligence operatives at the counter-terrorism bureau have a better scoop. If so, they aren't talking. Here in the cinder-block building that houses the bomb squad, the conversations are, alas, not much more conclusive than those on TV talk shows: Not if, but when? Not only how, but how bad?

The difference is that other people dwell on these thoughts only so long before pushing them out of mind. Here the inevitable dread is chewed on like a sore tooth every day. The bomb squad has just concluded a large-scale training exercise at LAX. Another multi-agency mock response drill is planned. The techs' SUVs, which, like their wallets, are with them always, are packed with hundreds of pounds of heavy gear meant to detect bombs, disable them and absorb some of the shrapnel from those that detonate. Shop talk bounces from the stock market to radioactive decontamination.

Are they ready?

Yes. No. Depends.

There is only one certainty. When the call comes, someone from among these 21 will be in that lead SUV, foot mashed down on the accelerator, the checklist rolling . . . the lonely walk looming.

When the LAPD bomb squad hosted an international conference for the free world's bomb techs, Det. Randy Becker arranged to have a 5-by-9-foot casing of a World War II atomic bomb "Fat Man" brought to Los Angeles and displayed. The original killed and wounded 75,000 at Nagasaki. In the bomb squad, they have to think about things like this.

"Tt's not like in the movies . . ." a detective is trying to explain things.

He doesn't get far. Because, actually, it is like the movies.

Sometimes, yes, you find yourself looking into a scary box with a digital timer just like the one James Bond found, and it's counting down the seconds. Sometimes you have to reach in with nippers and cut a wire, and, yes, you'd better cut the proper one because a "collapsing circuit" switch could be activated by the loss of battery power. Boom.

Hollywood has yet to match the atmospherics of the bomb squad's office redoubt. Part haunted house and part museum of horrors, the ceiling is low, the windows blacked out, the feeling subterranean. Defused bombs are displayed on walls, desks and bookshelves, and in drawers and closets: a 6-foot military bomb, rockets, grenades, blasting caps, mortars, a hollowed-out wad of cash made into a bomb, bazookas, pipe bombs, pop-bottle bombs, fireworks, dynamite, artillery shells, alarm clocks with wires, mines, cutaway briefcases, letters containing greetings from the grim reaper. Where else do you find cops with periodic tables of the elements tacked above their desks?

Life changes when you start living around bombs. You never look at things the same, even a Christmas package or that ice chest that seems to be all by itself at the beach.

During some down time, patrol officer Steven Kuranishi is booby-trapping his desk. He is on loan to the squad and will apply for the next vacancy. He uses Christmas tree lights to simulate a bomb. With simple Radio Shack circuitry, he is wiring the top drawer to light up when opened. But he adds a wrinkle. He hangs a note, "Pull me." At a high-rise office somewhere, that would be enough, perhaps, to trigger a 911 call and bring on the bomb squad. A tech would, of course, find a crudely wired and easily defeated bomb. But, ah, would the tech also see the connection to a second bomb, this one set to detonate when the first is removed?

To beat a bomb you have to know how to make one. A couple of the old-timers take a look at Kuranishi's work. None seem particularly impressed. When he learns a little more maybe he can come up with something scarier.

What makes these people tick? Well, their fire-retardant Nomex uniforms, with the bloused trousers and military explosives insignia, are considered--at least in this building--to be the coolest in the LAPD. Bomb techs get 16 1/2% hazardous duty pay, plus their drive-home SUVs and more strange and exotic equipment than any gear-head ever imagined. They don't have to work around unproven rookies or questionable supervisors. In fact, when the dime drops, they don't have to work around anybody.

But it doesn't explain why at least three on the team gave up a stripe in the LAPD to grab a rare opening on the squad and are not ashamed to say so. It doesn't quite answer why three--soon, four--of the squad techs also assume the around-the-clock responsibilities of training and caring for a bomb dog in addition to everything else. It doesn't offset the demands of all those nights and weekends on call, or those times when your spouse and kids or your hot date have to drive separately to a restaurant in case the beeper goes off and you need to roll.

No, there is something else here. Few people embark on careers in police work without at least some sense of a high calling. Some go bad. Some veer off and become bullies and menaces. But you can't intimidate a bomb with a nightstick; you can't strut for the crowd when the crowd has been pushed back and you're wrapped in the leggings, the diaper, the chest plate and helmet of a stifling bomb suit.

So what makes them go? They don't spend much time searching for the words. Every one of them has the required 7 1/2 years or more on the force, many of them 15 or more, and one of them twice that. They were picked from hundreds of applicants because they are supremely self-confident. They do the work that nobody else will touch, and they lunge to be the first to answer the phone because the tech who takes the call is usually the one who gets to handle it. As a result, the phone seldom hits the second ring. Ask them why. They'll give you a sidelong look: If you have to ask, you'll never know.

They are out there now, the bombers. Some cannot resist the bang. They are kids with fireworks. They are maniacs who blow off their fingers and blind themselves and go to prison and get out and cannot wait to build another and bigger bomb. They are the murderers who want to renege on their marriage vows or kill their landlord or settle a grudge with a business partner. And they are terrorists with no other power of persuasion.

At the bomb squad, motive doesn't matter much. A bomb is composed of fuel, an oxidizer and an igniter. And when the call comes here, the bomber is a small part of the equation.

Later you can ask, why and who? You might learn that it began with a laugh. An employee at the IRS chuckled when a man telephoned with a tax dispute. Or that's what the man told investigators after his arrest. But on Feb. 22, 1980, all Joe Pau cared about was the vengeful taxpayer's heavily loaded pickup truck that was parked outside an IRS office in West Los Angeles. Thousands of residents and workers had been evacuated. Traffic across a vast area of the city was hopelessly snarled. The truck already had started to smolder and pop. It fell to Pau to walk downrange and disarm it. The truck contained a timed detonator and 2,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil--the same "fertilizer bomb," at about half the size, that brought down the federal building and killed 168 in Oklahoma City.

There are some restraints on gun purchases, but hardly any when it comes to the components for a bomb. A plethora of underground, but readily available, guidebooks provide shopping lists for amateur bomb builders. The necessary components, readers are advised, can be obtained by quick stops at "electronics suppliers, hobby shops, alarm distributors and hardware stores." These supposed self-defense manuals reduce maiming and death to the cold rudimentary schematics of, say, assembling a child's birthday bicycle. Still unsolved in Los Angeles are a string of would-be bombings near schools in which children were tempted by a flower placed in a plastic traffic cone--the flower set as a trigger to ignite a gasoline explosion.

The scary truth is that a bomb powerful enough to kill can be made from just two components available at the supermarket. And plenty of people know how. And hardly a week goes by without reports of at least one being discharged.

It is Thursday evening. A bearded man in an aloha shirt enters the gift shop at Terminal 4 of Los Angeles International Airport. From inside a brown Trader Joe's shopping bag, he produces a cloth doll. Sewn inside is a pound of C-4, a military-grade explosive with enough power to bring down part of the terminal building and kill untold dozens. The man casually places the toy among other stuffed animals on a display shelf. Then he walks away with his empty paper bag.

During these yellow and orange days, explosives are not just a matter for the bomb squad. We all live in awareness. There is a measure of grim fate in every decision: Do we go to that music festival? Do we travel on this day? Do we peek into the airport gift shop?

Just now it's standing-room-only in the boarding areas of Terminal 4. There is a line six deep at the gift shop cash register. A grade-school girl looks toward the shelf of stuffed animals. She reaches out. Her mother yanks her away. "Not now," she says.

This time, the baby doll is a plant. The bearded man is on assignment with the police. The LAPD is exercising its bomb dogs. In addition to the squad's own kennel, some of the department's regular K-9 corps are being deployed to sweep the airport.

Dogs are human in some respects, particularly when it comes to getting satisfaction on the job. If a bomb dog doesn't find a bomb now and then, it's going to get bored and unhappy with its work. The only reward a police dog gets is play. Find a bomb, and that special toy, maybe a chunk of fire hose, comes out and you get to roughhouse with your handler. No bomb, no romping. No bomb, and pretty soon a dog loses interest in what it's supposed to do. So part of the routine of the bomb squad is to reward the dogs by hiding explosives--minus detonators--in buildings, parking lots, back-alley garbage cans and cars and on the shelf of stuffed toys at an LAX gift shop.

A uniformed LAPD officer and her leashed Belgian Malinois are crisscrossing the terminal, drawing anxious glances from passengers. As if travel wasn't nerve-racking enough, now there are officers with "Bomb Squad" insignias lurking about. The russet-coated dog, its nose moving like a miniature radar dish, trails quickly but intently from carry-on bags to waste baskets to the shoes of passengers and then enters the gift shop. It sniffs one aisle and then pauses in front of the stuffed animals. It sits, squirming--the signal that it has detected an explosive. The handler releases the animal from its lead and the two wrestle and chase each other up the terminal's main hall.

"What was in that?" an onlooker asks.

"A pound of C-4," an officer replies.

"Oh."

Dogs are primarily employed to sweep high-risk sites, such as transportation hubs or the theater where the Academy Awards are held. Typically they are not used to respond to telephoned bomb threats at businesses or schools. Not enough dogs, not enough hours in the day. The first LAPD bomb dog in 10 years to make a "good alert" on live explosives was a chocolate Lab named "J.J.," for Jackie Junior--the partner of Jackie Hickey, the only female tech on the bomb squad. The case involved a man suspected of trying to kill his estranged wife and children. J.J. sniffed the man's car, and then sat. Inside were the fixings for pipe bombs.

"I have a personal dog too . . . but I'm closer to J.J.," says Hickey, a 14-year veteran of the LAPD and former Marine Corps drill instructor. "J.J. and I are partners all the time. A personal dog is for play. J.J. is going to keep me safe."

The commitment to care for a police dog is many degrees more profound than taking the briefcase home from the office. The dogs need continual socialization because they work around crowds. Yet friends and family cannot play freely with these working animals as if they are pets. And the dogs need exercise, vet care, potty breaks and baths, and they certainly cannot be left at a kennel for a weekend escape.

So why do it?

It's all wrapped up in that question. The one that if you must ask, you'll never comprehend the answer.

"I can't reduce it to a few words," Hickey says. She gropes for a way to express ideas such as "duty" and "team" and "protecting citizens," and then apologizes for being soupy. "There are some of us," she says with a shrug, "who are classified as believers."

She pauses, and adds, "Then there was 9/11. . . ."

In bomb squads around the world there is an argument: What's the role of the robot? In its arsenal of equipment, the LAPD maintains a spindly robot the size of a lawn tractor that rides in the back of a special van. Another is on order for the bomb squad's station at LAX. Depending on the circumstances, the LAPD sometimes relies on its robot to approach suspect bombs, but not as often as some other U.S. law enforcement agencies and bomb squads abroad. In Los Angeles, the police still rely primarily on human techs. They can be brought into play more rapidly. Perhaps, it is believed, they can defuse a bomb that a robot might set off. But most important: Repetition keeps you razor sharp for those calls--and maybe that big one someday--where a robot cannot reach a bomb or would otherwise be ineffective. You don't want to be hyperventilating or get the shakes because you are out of practice when you have to go downrange.

Paul Robi, a tech with the physique of an oak tree, is telling about the time an overnight shipping company called from its Los Angeles hub. A box split open on a conveyor belt and a grenade rolled out. An employee grabbed it. He was standing there, holding down the safety spoon in his trembling hand.

Don't let him release the grenade. Give him a chair to sit in. We're on our way.

Odd thing. When the bomb squad got there, the man was still standing all alone, grenade in hand. None of his co-workers had dared bring him a chair. Three techs made the approach. One shielded the worker's head and chest with a thick Kevlar bomb blanket. Another peeled the grenade from his sweaty hand. Robi picked up the man and whisked him to an exit.

What good would a robot have done?

The grenade proved to be a prop for the Mel Gibson war movie "We Were Soldiers."

The insignia of the LAPD bomb squad shows two numbers: 50, because the bomb squad was formed in 1950. And 86, because Feb. 8, 1986, was the worst day in its history.

Arleigh McCree commanded the bomb squad then, and he had a national reputation much like his onetime understudy Joe Pau does today. McCree's partner on the call was 17-year LAPD veteran Ronald Ball. Patrol officers had served a search warrant at the home of a Hollywood makeup artist while investigating an attempted murder. What appeared to be a pipe bomb was found and the bomb squad summoned. The device proved to be two pipe bombs wired together. The techs disarmed one. Not the other.

In the cruelest attempt at irony, the attorney for the makeup artist tried unsuccessfully to argue that McCree and Ball caused their own deaths--for being so reckless as to handle bombs.

"I try not to focus on the question--'Well, this could be the one,' " says Det. Doug Stice, a lanky man with a trace of sideburns and four years on the squad. He is trying to explain what it felt like each of those 20 or so times when he was called to make that lonely walk.

You can hear the fan inside the bomb suit; air is being blown onto your Plexiglas face shield to prevent fogging. You can hear your own breath inside the padded helmet. Maybe the muffled thwack-thwack of helicopters overhead. "It's a very personal feeling," Stice continues. "How do I explain it? Basically, it brings you down to ground level. Scared? You should be scared on one level. But you can't be too scared to function. Mostly you're scared after the fact.

"At 200, 300 feet, you're thinking, 'Hey, is this the one?' " You wave that thought away. Remember, there's always a bomb at the end of the journey. "You don't get a second chance. You get it right, or . . ." Stice interrupts himself. "Not too many people want to make that walk. Not too many people can make that walk."

Thoughts are running in streams now. The checklist. The angle of approach. All the things around you. What can shatter and fly at you as shrapnel? Where can you fix a grappling rope if you have to move the bomb? Are there booby-traps in your path? Is there cover? You cannot wear enough protective gear to shield you from a high-explosive blast wave that travels a half-mile in a second with enough shock-force to pulp your internal organs. All of your body heat is trapped inside the suit and you're pouring sweat.

And your instincts, what do they say? Lawyers will chew you up in court if you say you were listening to a voice in your head. But, of course, you are. You call it the voice of experience. "Nine times out of 10 when I'm on a device, I can tell if it's going to be a good one," Stice says. "The day I stop knowing, or stop feeling I know, I'm quitting this job."

You are near.

Then you are there. Whatever it is, it fills the slit of Plexiglas in front of your eyes. The world is no larger than this box, or this drum, or this piece of galvanized pipe that looks as if it's vomiting wires, or this tanker truck, or this shipping container. Now it's just like Joe Pau said. You're not here to survive. You're here to conquer. As soon as you figure out how. You're betting your life that you can.

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