Danger Beneath the Surface
This episode covers the September 2019 session of the FBI's Underwater Post-Blast Investigation course.
Steve Lewis: On any given summer day, Lake Murray in Columbia, South Carolina, is teeming with fishermen and boaters.
But this morning, there’s a group of law enforcement officers, first responders, and service members out there looking for exploded bomb parts scattered across the bottom of the lake.
While this may seem like a dangerous situation, it’s actually a realistic exercise that’s part of the FBI’s Underwater Post-Blast Investigation course.
Over the past week, students have been learning about the tools and techniques needed in the crucial hours after an explosion.
I’m Steve Lewis, and on this episode of Inside the FBI, I’m going to take you into the field to learn what it takes to become a maritime operations bomb technician.
Along the way, you’ll hear more about the course from the Bureau’s top instructors and past students, as well as how the training originated from the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School.
So sit back and put your goggles on—we're about to dive in to another episode of Inside the FBI.
Lewis: It’s 8 o’clock on a Thursday morning, and students are loading up dive equipment and other gear onto several police boats tied off on the dock. It’s a mix of bomb techs and public safety divers from law enforcement agencies across the region, all here to complete the week-long Underwater Post-Blast Investigation course.
After spending time in the classroom, they’re now participating in a final exam of sorts. The students are being graded by FBI instructors on their ability to identify and recover exploded bomb parts used in simulated attacks. They’ve already been given clues about where bomb fragments and other evidence might be, but tracking them down won’t be easy.
With limited visibility and a shifting current, it’s possible the objects have moved and will be difficult to spot.
But that makes this exercise even more realistic, just as the instructors intended.
Prior to this dive, the course began on dry land. Through a combination of lectures and hands-on demonstrations, students have learned to recognize components of IEDs, collect evidence, and map out blast fields after explosions.
Mike McNair: Our local law enforcement public safety bomb tech divers, this is a capstone course for them. Essentially, they are taking everything they've learned throughout their career as a maritime bomb tech, and now we're going to work a post-blast scene. Something that happened in their harbors, something that happened in their backyard or in their communities, and they need to be able to efficiently and quickly gather that evidence, so law enforcement personnel are able to exploit it and take care of their communities and build a case based on that evidence.
Lewis: That was Mike McNair, an FBI explosives operations specialist and one of the top Bureau employees tasked to lead the Underwater Post-Blast Investigation course.
The capstone training that McNair mentioned is a component of the Bureau’s maritime operations bomb technician certification program. That program offers a variety of courses that prepares public safety divers and bomb techs to counter threats in their home waterways.
McNair: We host for our state and local partners to help them be investigators in the event of an underwater post blast. We need our folks to come here already good, proficient divers. And they've gone to our other courses within the pipeline. We just need to now go out and dive and collect evidence and start building a storyboard on what happened and why it happened.
Lewis: Back out on Lake Murray, the students are working in pairs to map out potential blast areas and are diving to recover evidence.
Each group was given different scenarios and objects to search for, like an IED attached to a sunken boat, a mannequin wearing a suicide vest, or a bomb hidden inside a crashed airplane.
Small orange buoys bob up and down on the surface with nylon rope tied to them. The bright-colored rope is being used to guide divers down to the lake bottom, where bomb fragments might be.
It’s not an easy process, but slowly, students surface with plastic bags filled with debris, electronic parts, and pieces of the exploded bomb. The next step will be cleaning and piecing together the evidence on the beach.
For the bomb techs who are used to investigating a post-blast scene on dry land, the underwater nature of the training brought an entirely new dynamic to recovering evidence.
Here’s Miles Nicholson from the Tampa Police Department bomb squad:
Miles Nicholson: I'd say the most important thing we have learned is the dynamics of what happens to an explosion underwater, as opposed to an above air explosion. It throws a lot of shrapnel and frag everywhere. Depending on how big of an explosion it can be, it can throw shrapnel several hundred feet. Under water, the main thing they taught us is when explosions occur under water, it's as far as the gas bubble expands underneath the water. That's how far the shrapnel goes and dumps it down on the ocean floor, which minimizes the perimeter of what you're looking for, which is pretty crazy.
Lewis: Nicholson and others had an opportunity to learn and practice new techniques in a low-stress environment, which better prepared students for real-world scenarios back home.
James Watford: It's important for them to be able to see this type of stuff in the training environment here, where we have nice, clean conditions, there's very little current. This way they get to actually experience what they’re going to face in the real world. All all they have to change is the environment they work in.
Lewis: That was Detective James Watford, a course instructor assisting the FBI from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
Watford: They can come here; they can see this process in good conditions, where they learn from the process, understand how to work the scenes and how to manage the scenes. When they get home and they’re in their environment, they just have to adapt those procedures to their environment that they work in.
Lewis: Most of the students in the Underwater Post-Blast Investigation course received their initial training at the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School or HDS. The facility, located in Huntsville, Alabama, is the only place in the country that trains and certifies the nation’s public safety bomb techs.
John Stewart: We are training the first responders of America. We feel a great responsibility to get it right. So if they leave here on Friday and they go to work Monday and they get a bomb call, they should feel absolutely comfortable—based on the training they receive—that they’re going to survive that call and be able to go home.
Lewis: That was Special Agent John Stewart, director of the Hazardous Devices School. He oversees the smooth operation of a sprawling campus complete with classrooms, explosive ranges, and mock villages. New bomb techs spend six weeks there learning about electricity, fuses, and improvised explosives. Their certification ensures they will be operating from the same playbook as every other bomb tech in the country.
Since 1971, the Hazardous Devices School has provided training to more than 20,000 local, state, and federal first responders and bomb techs. The training for new and experienced students prepares them for a wide range of threats.
Here’s more from Mike Vargos, an instructor at the school
Mike Vargos: This is an ever-changing syllabus, if you want to say, for the students here, because we want them to learn what we know based on intelligence and teach them those skills to help them in the real world.
Being that this is the only place in the United States that teaches our bomb techs, we feel that we’re providing them the best training possible. You know, we want to make sure these guys are trained to the highest level to be able to handle any situation they come across.
Lewis: Miles Nicholson, who we heard from earlier, is one of the many bomb techs in this week’s underwater post blast investigation course who also got certified by the FBI at the Hazardous Devices School.
Nicholson: It’s a pretty good feeling, with the bomb technician it’s a very specialized skill, so every training class we go through, like this one, you're always working with technicians from around the country. And the initial HDS class, there's only one school in the country, and all the bomb techs get certified there. And it's quite a unique experience. So we're all trained to the same skillset. So it's no problem for us to come together and work together.
Lewis: Now that the students have surfaced with recovered bomb fragments, they’re working in their teams on the beach to put the puzzle pieces together. Like McNair mentioned earlier, the whole point of this exercise is to use the gathered evidence to build a case for fellow investigators.
As the different pieces are cleaned off and organized on dry land, students are beginning to connect the dots. With most of the parts together in one place, it’s easier to see the types of improvised explosives that were used in the scenarios. In a real-world setting, these parts may be taken to an FBI lab, like the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center or TEDAC, where evidence is analyzed and potentially tracked to the criminals that made the bombs.
McNair: We have our many labs like TEDAC and explosive units that can take these pieces. And we can figure out from an investigative level who did this, and our investigators figure out why they did this. And then we can disrupt that cell. That's the end state and the goal that we want to impart.
Lewis: With the weekend training at the Underwater Post Blast Investigation course now complete, students are leaving Lake Murray armed with the expertise and techniques they need to keep their community waterways safe back home.
As new threats emerge from the deep, the FBI will continue to work with its state and local partners to ensure bomb techs and public safety divers across the country are prepared.
McNair: The FBI and our public safety bomb techs are phenomenally proficient at above ground post blast. Where we're deficient is the underwater post blast medium and mission space. And we really need to focus on that because it's not a matter of if, it's when.
Lewis: To learn more about the FBI’s Underwater Post-Blast Investigation course—and to see photos from the training out at Lake Murray—visit fbi.gov/underwater.
This has been another episode of Inside the FBI. I’m Steve Lewis with the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks again for tuning in.