LAPD BOMB SQUAD LOOKS AT LIFE AND DEATH
Whenever Harry Lathrop or his partners go to work, everybody in their right mind scatters. That’s because they’re members of LAPD’s elite Bomb Squad unit.
If you received a buzzing package delivered to your doorstep, wouldn’t you do like a guy in the San Fernando Valley did: Call the cops? When the bomb squad arrived with all its sophisticated gear, what did they find? A vibrator — a gift from the victim’s girlfriend. It had turned itself on in transit.
Is that funny? In retrospect: Hell yes! But on an emergency call: Hell no!
When Harry or the two dozen men and women who work the Hazardous Devices/Materials Section for the Los Angeles Police Department respond to a call, it’s always a potentially explosive situation. As we shared a booth at the Corner Bakery Cafe in Manhattan Beach, Harry impressed me as a knowledgeable professional, an unpretentious lawman with a serious sense of humor. With his short-cropped butch, Popeye forearms and ball bearing shoulders, the husky 200 pounder was just as intimidating as Clint Eastwood’s fictionalized Dirty (“Make my day!”) Harry.
The only difference was that Harry Lathrop was a real cop with more than 30 years on the force. Eastwood was prettier, taller, richer and a far better actor than the man in blue seated across from me.
More than a decade earlier, he had gone through a special F.B.I. training program at the Redstone Military Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama to qualify as a bomb squad technician.
Before that, he was one of the original members of the LAPD’s Bomb K-9 unit at Los Angeles International Airport.
Of course, he wasn’t wearing the 80-pound bomb suit that makes him and partners like Tony Doyen look like spooky aliens from another galaxy. If he wore his EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) outfit into the cafe, he guaranteed: “The place would clear out real fast.”
What follows is a question-and-answer conversation we had, bearing in mind that Harry didn’t want me to reveal any company secrets.
Screwing around with a bomb… for God sakes, you could be blown to smithereens! How do you handle that emotionally?
“For law enforcement people and fire fighters, that’s part of the job,” he told me. “You don’t need a PhD to be a bomb technician. But you must have the knowledge and the common sense to cope with a variety of devices.”
Have you disarmed many bombs?
“We don’t say ‘disarm,’” he said. “It’s ‘render safe.’”
How many bombs have you personally rendered safe?
“I never counted.”
“A few. In Los Angeles, we run about 900 calls a year. You might get four or five calls in a day; then you could go for weeks with no calls.”
What’s it like to roll on call?
“Usually, when you arrive, the street coppers have already evacuated everybody. You don’t always know what you’re going to find.”
Harry told me about “rendering safe” a huge homemade bomb, a situation he described as “ugly.” He said that he had to “make it go away.” Since the case was pending litigation, I can’t use the story but I can quote him as saying:
“I put on my 80-pound business suit and went in with what we call an equipment disrupter. I’ve gotta be careful talking about this.”
Was it like in the movies where seconds before the bomb is to explode, George Clooney or Matt Damon have gotta figure which of the colored wires to snip?
“Oh, no, no!” We both laughed. “That’s all Hollywood crap. No, we put on our protective gear and go in with our disrupters. Depending on what kind of device you’re trying to render safe, you choose specific rounds for a target.”
A beach cities minister told me about discovering a large, suspicious looking, gift-wrapped package left at the entrance to the church where he was about to perform a wedding ceremony.
After evacuating the bride, groom, and about 75 guests, a bomb squad officer, dressed in heavy protective gear, tested the package for explosives. The box, said the minister, contained “horse droppings,” compliments of the bride’s hostile ex-husband who was later arrested.
On every job, you’re gambling with your life, aren’t you?
“We don’t even think about that nonsense. The focus is: ‘What do I need to do to make this thing safe?’”
Has your unit ever lost anybody?
“In 1986 we lost two men. Ron Ball and Arleigh McCree, a counter-terrorism specialist. They were in a murder suspect’s garage in Hollywood when two pipe bombs exploded.”
Does your wife ever worry about you?
“No. We talked prior to my joining the unit. She said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, go for it.’
“She knows that we’re well trained; have good equipment. She knows I wouldn’t do anything stupid,” he smiled, adding, “I expect to enjoy my retirement.”
Who are the culprits who plant these bombs?
“They can be anyone from kids to home-grown terrorists.
Do you understand fear?
“For me, it’s knowing that I’ll have to pay taxes again this year,” he joked, then grew serious. “Fear is an individual phobia. What scares me might not scare somebody else. In this line of work, you don’t allow those things to come into play. You focus on your job. It’s something you’re trained to do.”
How do you cope with facing death?
“I don’t think about that. We concentrate on situations we have to deal with. I think about the street coppers. They see more than their share. They’re the guys who have it rough. They’re the ones doing the real work. Not me!”
When you’re not wearing your Darth Vader paraphernalia, what do you do during the day? Play checkers? Watch soap operas?
“You’d be surprised. We do our own kind of forensics. We
train continually. We dissect all the bombs we’ve rendered safe. We’re constantly learning, refining techniques. We practice getting into suits and handling explosive devices.”
So it’s not like selling real estate or working at Macy’s?
How long does it take to get into a bomb suit?
“A couple of minutes. You can’t do it alone. Your partners have to help. You’re wearing a big thick cumbersome piece of bulky armor. You can maneuver in it, but your movement is limited. Each technician has a suit that’s individually fitted.”
Is there a bomb squad tailor?
“No. Our suits come in small, medium and large.”
Is your suit something like what the astronauts wear?
“We’re more like Sir Lancelot.”
“Have you seen ‘The Hurt Locker’?” asked Harry, referring to the low-budget film which won six Oscars in 2010. “It’s a good movie. Very entertaining with a lot of Hollywood. But the bomb suits are very accurate. Right on.”
Hollywood, he said, “adds a lot of fuel to make big incendiary fireballs. In real life, most explosions aren’t that spectacular.”
When you go on a call, how do people react?
“Usually, everybody’s been evacuated. So we don’t have to deal with the public. We just show up. Make things safe. Then leave. But we take everything serious. We always assume that we’re going to find something very ugly, very nasty. You never know what you’re dealing with until you do your diagnostics. It’s either, ‘OK, this is nothing!’ or ‘This is something and we’ve got to make it go away — safely.’”
Tony, Harry’s bomb-squad partner, recalled an explosive incident that occurred at 2010′s 82nd Academy Awards’ ceremony at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood.
As K-9 bomb-sniffing dogs “swept” the theater for hazardous devices, one canine “pooped” on the famous red carpet, then did it again on the kitchen floor of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.
Can you give me one suspenseful incident that happened to you?
“There was a pipe bomb with exposed wires in South Central Los Angeles. I’m wearing a new bomb suit which my partner helped me get into. Looking at those loose wires, I’m thinking: ‘Wow, if those wires touch, this thing could go!’
“As I’m bending over the bomb, my face shield — it’s pretty heavy — falls on the wires. Nothing happens. The bomb was fake. I knew that my partner was very capable, a really good guy; he wasn’t trying to do me in,” said Harry whimsically.
Why did you ever become a cop, Harry?
“I joined the department right out of Torrance High School. After a while I realized: Law enforcement is a pretty cool job.”
Many bomb squad units like LAPD’s Hazardous Devices/Materials Section — and there are literally hundreds across the country — are equipped to handle a diversity of emergencies.
Besides EOD suits, technicians carry their own tool box, work with water canons or bomb disrupters that can shoot a powerful stream of water or fire varying projectiles at a specific target rendering it safe without disturbing the contents. They also operate disrupter robots that can lift packages and climb obstacles, X-ray machines and work with bomb-sniffing dogs.
When we talked, LAPD’s latest bomb-fighting toy — created by LAPD technicians — was a rumbling 39,000-pound radio-controlled vehicle named The Batcat. It was like an armor-plated Tyrannosaurus rex with huge tires and an extension that reached 50 feet. Its forklift arms could pick up a SUV containing an explosive device, drive to a safe distance and deposit it into a high-impact chamber. There it could go BOOM without harming citizens or the stalwart bomb squad guys and gals who had to cope with such hazardous devices. The mammoth unmanned remote ground vehicle was being touted as LAPD’s futuristic defense weapon. Since LAPD now has its Batcat, what do you call the vehicle that carries all your bomb squad equipment? I asked Harry.
“A truck,” he replied.
With all the years working first as a regular street cop and now as a bomb technician, what have you learned about yourself?
“I should have stayed in school. Maybe I could have become a neurosurgeon.”
– Boots LeBaron –
(Note: There are more stories like this in THE HUMAN RACE BY BOOTS LEBARON, my newly-released book on Amazon through CreateSpace. It consists of interviews with people ranging from astronauts to actors to strippers, plus essays and light poetry. Take a look by clicking on the link provided below.)