There was cause for concern late last Friday afternoon when the Phelps County 911 dispatch placed a call to emergency personnel for “a bag of suspicious nature” found at the entry of the Missouri S&T nuclear reactor building at 250 West 13th Street.
Who would have thought that a solitary black trash bag could hold something possibly hazardous, a part of some sinister plot, yet to be played out? That was the question Rolla’s emergency response teams and others would have to answer over the course of one long night.
“It’s the world we live in,” said spokesperson and Rolla Fire and Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Breen.
Not many people would imagine something like terrorist activity in Rolla, much less know about the process of handling such a call; but our Rolla Fire and Rescue emergency responders played a big part in defusing whatever the situation would eventually bring.
Asst. Chief Breen said the call came in at 3:45 p.m. The initial response involved the Missouri S&T Police Department, Rolla Police Department and Rolla Fire and Rescue. Breen said there were unknowns going into the response call but they knew enough to get the investigation started.
“Some of the S&T people actually looked in the bag and were able to identify some ammunition,” said Breen. “With ammunition, we couldn’t use a bomb squad dog, because it would have hit on it anyway.”
“The determination was to call the Missouri State Highway Patrol and get their bomb squad out,” added Breen. “The FBI was also notified.”
Subsequently, four or five agents arrived on the scene according to Breen. By this time, the nuclear reactor building and the surrounding buildings on that part of the campus had been searched, vacated and quarantined.
The bomb squad entered the area, aided with a robot. With the robot, Breen said the squad was able to see what could possibly be a chemical.
“Now that complicated things—it’s not just a possible explosive,” said Breen. “It could be a hazardous chemical or biological material. Now, it’s become two different operations at the same scene.”
Breen said Rolla FIre and Rescue was able to do some monitoring by placing a sophisticated sensor on the robot that measures gases like oxygen, carbon monoxide, VOC’s and hydrogen sulfide. The monitoring didn’t turn up anything unusual, but it couldn’t rule out other chemicals, chemical reaction byproducts or hazardous biologicals.
The next step was sampling. Rolla Fire and Rescue is capable of handling this procedure with its hazardous materials team, but they are not set up to do the necessary lab testing to identify the materials.
“We partner a lot with the National Guard 7th Civil Support Team (CST), based in Jefferson City. “They’re full time and all they do is “HAZMAT” (hazardous materials) and “WMD” (weapons of mass destruction),” explained Breen.
He said that one of their team, a medical officer, lives in Waynesville and was able to come quickly to the site for an evaluation which was soon relayed back to the team in Jeff City so they could prepare for what they might find in Rolla.
“Before we could make entry, we had to be sure there wasn’t a bomb,” said Breen. “The bomb squad doesn’t like to make an entry if there are chemicals present, and the chemical guys don’t like to enter if there is the possibility of a bomb. So they sent the robot back in and pulled out the device that they thought could be an explosive and they X-rayed it.”
Breen said the X-ray showed the device was not a bomb, so they shifted gears from responding to an explosive device situation to a possible chemical attack.
“Before the CST group came, the Fire Department HAZMAT team had all the decontamination set up to go to save time,” Breen noted.
“When the CST got here, we did a briefing and equipment check—it takes time. We made our entry at 12:45 a.m.”
He said there were two men in full HAZMAT safety suits (called an “A-suit”) down range (close to the target) and the Rolla Fire Department had two men dressed at 50 percent. If the two men in full regalia get into trouble, the other two in the team can get dressed quickly to help get the men to safety.
According to Breen, the first thing this squad does is a scene characterization. Lots of photos are taken and all aspects of the area are documented to highlight anything that could be considered as evidence, because it is considered a possible crime scene. Once this was completed, the team took samples; but even this is not an easy process.
“This is an art all by itself—to be able to take a sample without cross-contamination,” said Breen. “Once the samples are taken, we decontaminate the evidence. We have a kill bucket that has a cleaning solution. The sample is in a sealed container and we dunk it, rinse it and overpack it twice in two more containers. From there, it goes into the CST’s truck that has the lab where they will do the testing.
“The tests take quite a bit of time,” he says. “There are chemists in the truck that are testing for the top eight known properties in chemicals which can be tested quicker—within 45 minutes.”
Breen said the powder that was found in the bag was an inert material, much like concrete dust. He also said there was a sticky, viscous material like a gel.
“They didn’t know what that material was—it would have taken another 12 hours, but they knew it wasn’t a hazardous material,” explained Breen.
At 2 a.m. early Saturday morning, this testing information was sent to the FBI and the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Working together, they could now enter the site where the bag was sitting and retrieve the device that the bomb squad deemed as a possible explosive device, for evidence.
“At this point, the area was picked up and everything was organized, cleaned and put away,” said Breen. “I think the total operation was done by 4 a.m.. It was a long operation.”
Missouri S&T Police were contacted for comments, but declined, as the investigation is ongoing.