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Cover Story

Inside the NYPD Bomb Squad

Today's bomb tech has many tools available to help him defuse IEDs, but it still takes guts to "cut the red wire."

September 01, 2007  |  by Richard Esposito and Ted Gerstein


On Dec. 31, 2003, reporters Richard Esposito and Ted Gerstein joined the NYPD Bomb Squad as full-time observers. They did so with the unanimous consent of all 33 bomb techs in the unit.

Esposito and Gerstein spent all of 2004 observing the squad in action. Their observations and the close rapport that they built with the bomb techs yielded "Bomb Squad: A Year Inside the Nation's Most Exclusive Police Unit," published earlier this year by Hyperion Books.

POLICE Magazine is proud to offer you this excerpt from "Bomb Squad," a book that answers the age-old question: Why would any right-thinking cop want to come face to face with a bomb?

The Year's First Run

SPRINT REPORT 1305 HOURS

BOMB SQUAD JOB #001, 2004

"UNDERNEATH WHITE AUTO-[CALLER] STS PACKAGE IS ATTACHED TO HIS AUTO-SOMETHING-UNDERNEATH-HAS ELECTRICAL-TAPE AROUND IT-BOMB SQUAD RESPOND TO LOC-"

Listening to the excited radio traffic, Kenny Dean and Paulie Perricone had heard enough. The two young NYPD bomb techs had just finished up a security sweep. They notified Bomb Squad Base, tossed their gear back into their response truck, and headed out to Whitestone, Queens, under lights and siren. It appeared someone had rigged a homemade bomb to the undercarriage of a man's car. The new year had begun.

"We had done a marathon; worked the overnight on New Year's Eve into New Year's Day; started at 3 P.M., worked until 7 A.M., and then began a day tour. The job came in, just before we were scheduled to go off," Perricone said afterward.

Perricone and Dean, along with seven other newcomers, had joined the squad in February 2002. It had been a massive influx of new blood for such a small unit; a unit that had had less than 225 members in its first 100 years.

After the World Trade Center attack, many of the most senior squad members had been faced with a choice. They had completed a year fat with hard-earned overtime and, if they elected to retire, their pensions would be figured against the swollen earnings. If they elected to stay, they would later retire on much smaller pensions. Security and family came first, and 11 sets of retirement papers were sent to Police Headquarters. Perricone and Dean were two of their replacements.

"We were brand-new. On the way there I called my buddy working on Emergency Service that day, and he says to me, 'Paulie, you know that I open everything, and I'm the last guy to call the Bomb Squad unnecessarily, but if I had to guess what a mercury switch looked like...this would be it.' So we had a bit of pucker action on the way there.

"This was the first time. We were a little nervous, but Kenny and I were a little excited to have a real bomb. We shot over quick; I suited up Kenny quick-and I wanted to have at least a picture in our hands before [the sergeant] showed up. Kenny went down and took an X-ray, and you could see a mercury switch, a battery, you could see what looked like a load. The can was packed."

The suspicious package was a Red Bull can. The X-ray showed it was packed with match heads and attached to the car's gas line.

Perricone and Dean set up their water disrupter, loaded a shotgun shell, and pulled the trigger. The water stream severed the power supply, disrupted the electrical circuit, and sprayed parts of the device all over the front lawn of the attacker's intended victim. The bomb had been rendered safe. It took a split second.

Jan 2, 2004

Bomb Squad Base is a suite of three shabby rooms behind a plain beige steel door on the second floor of a Greenwich Village police precinct. A large, finned, khaki green military bomb hangs nose down from the ceiling above it. Mischievous eyes and a red and white sawtooth grin painted on the nose point the way inside.

This day Lt. Mark Torre was at his desk sipping his morning coffee from an oversized dark blue Bomb Squad mug. The year's first pile of paper was already in front of him.

Perricone and Dean sat outside in the squad room. They were finishing up their paperwork on the energy drink bomb.

The commercial coffeemaker was on inside the kitchen, pushing piping hot water through the grinds. Every hour or so the standing coffee would be tossed and a fresh pot brewed. It was the squad's pride that it had the freshest, strongest coffee of any NYPD office, including that of the commissioner himself.

The Postmortem

Dean, a tall man with a soft, husky voice, stepped into Lt. Torre's office. He sat on the edge of the black vinyl couch that was jammed against one wall. Det. Joe Putkowski wandered in and got comfortable on the other side of it. Perricone stood in the doorway. It was time for the postmortem.

"Right up until the picture came back we were sure it was a hoax," Dean said. "It comes back and I see the battery, the switch, the filler, and the hot wire." He handed over a pale gray and milky white X-ray picture to Torre.

Dean explained the device. Its trigger mechanism was designed so that when the car door was opened and the front seat sat in, a motion switch was flipped and a jolt of electricity snapped down a hot wire stripped of insulation and rigged over the fuel line. The idea was that the sparks would ignite the fuel and send the flames down into the gas tank, triggering a satisfyingly lethal explosion.

"I'm not sure it would have worked," Torre said.

Putkowski, a 15-year veteran of the squad, didn't think it would have ignited either.

Torre added that it seemed doubtful that even if the switch had worked, the match heads would have burned hot enough to ignite the fuel.

In any case, the younger men had taken the proper precautions. Putkowski might have just cut the wire. He was old school. New school taught bomb techs to defuse devices from a distance whenever possible and go hands-on only when necessary. That was why they used the water disrupter.

Call Number Two

At 10:12 the Special Operations Division radio crackled. A suspicious person had been spotted as he opened the trunk of a parked white sedan, dropped something in it, slammed it shut, and departed, leaving the keys dangling from the trunk lock. Brian Senft, Jeff Oberdier, Sgt. Brian Coughlan, and Sgt. Bobby Duke stood up, stretched, and went into motion.

Even as Duke signed the team out, the dark blue garage doors below them motored open. A dog was taken from his kennel and loaded into his cage inside a truck. Gear was checked. Coughlan headed to his Ford SUV. And a two-vehicle convoy dodged through Greenwich Village and raced across the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn.

Yellow police tape was strung to clearly define an inner and outer perimeter. The outer perimeter was marked by lines of tape strung several hundred feet in all directions from the vehicle. The inner one was a compact rectangle about a hundred feet away from the car.

Emergency Service officers stood by ready to assist in suiting up the bomb tech if needed. The operating procedure calls for the ESU officers to assist in getting the tech into his suit and to deploy their heavy weapons if needed for force protection.

Senft led his dog from its cage. He let him familiarize himself with the smells of the scene. Jeff Oberdier, the squad's training officer, stood beside him, his Air Force EOD wings with their dull gleam on his left lapel. Oberdier would go downrange with Senft, who was the newest man on the squad.

Senft and Oberdier and the dog took their walk down to the car. Everyone else stood ready. The dog sniffed around-hood, sides, trunk lid, and bumpers. Senft handed Jeff his coat and crawled under the car for a look. Everything was clear.

At 10:30 ESU opened the trunk. At 10:45 Coughlan informed the base, "We're good." Back to Manhattan. There had been no explosives, but that was not a surprise to the techs.

Similar scenarios would be repeated over and over again each day throughout the year. One of the challenges for bomb techs is to keep repetition from dulling their senses to the reality that the device only has to be real once.

It was two days into the New Year and the workload was already coming in steadily. In 2003 there had been 2,634 bomb runs, sweeps, and disposals. There was no reason to expect a sharp reduction in 2004.

Training Never Ends

For the younger bomb technicians, the initial training process takes two years. It begins months before any NYPD apprentice bomb tech is even sent to the U.S. Army-FBI Hazardous Devices School in Huntsville, Ala., where he earns his "license to die" in a five-week basic course. It continues for months afterward to ensure that the techs know more than just enough to get blown up.

Post-HDS, training is relentless, even though many of the NYPD bomb techs have already been hardened as Marines with tours in Afghanistan and the Gulf, or as Air Force EOD men, Army Rangers, and Navy SEALs, specialties where explosives detection and defusing often are at the center of the job.

Bomb technicians work in teams, and those teams have to be as smooth and efficient as a NASCAR pit crew. In 2004, Jeff Oberdier, the training officer, kept track of who needed to be sent down to the Hazardous Devices School for the triennial recertification of basic skills. All in all, this creates a steady backbeat behind the daily calls to action.

In-service training was not only the job of Jeff Oberdier, it was also the job of the senior men: Sgt. Hearn, Det. Joe Putkowski, Sgt. Anthony Biondolilo, and Det. Jimmy Carrano, the range officer.

The Senior Man

"What you see me do, you may not do yet. To you they are shortcuts. But not to me. You may first have to do it a little more by the book."

Det. Second Grade Joseph Putkowski was speaking to a younger tech even as he was suiting himself up in a Harlem subway station. It was well after dark, but people still streamed home from work and up onto the busy sidewalks and bright lights of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street.

Emergency Service had been waiting to assist him when he pulled up, and two of those officers now helped him into the Kevlar bomb suit.

"Do you guys draw straws and the short straw gets to put this suit on?" one of the ESU officers asked Putkowski. He was strapping on the chest plate.

"No. The short straw guy doesn't get to wear the suit," Putkowski laughed. "We all want to put it on."

"Loo, I think it's probably nothing," Putkowski told Lt. Torre. "I mean I can probably just go and cut it open, but since we're all here, we'll take some pictures first. And if the lieutenant wasn't here," Joe said in a near whisper, "I would skip the suit, too. But...rules..." He now looked like a blue-eyed turtle, peering from a dull green shell.

A pulley was rigged and lines run down the stairs to the package. Once the area was clear, the ropes were used to gentle the package into position for an X-ray. The picture showed baby wipes, a bottle, and baby food. Putkowski went down and cut it open.

Putkowski was a senior man. A senior man has neither a particular rank nor an official standing. What he has is his personal authority. He doesn't need any other.

Each team of bomb techs that goes from Bomb Squad Base into the field has a senior man as well as a sergeant attached to it. The sergeants command. The senior men teach by example. They are mentors, judges, and harsh taskmasters. They joke about the hokey bomb scenes in Hollywood movies where the hero goes in and cuts the red wire in the nick of time, or fails to, and then they still go in and "cut the red wire" with hand tools. They do it with the economy that only training, intuition, practice, and the experience of defusing hundreds of actual devices permits.

Det. Second Grade Joseph Putkowski had been on the Squad for 15 years in 2004. At the time he was its most senior member. And the path laid down for him to get there was the most unusual of any member since 1940, when the squad and its protocols became fully modernized.

The Police Department faced a particularly difficult challenge in 1988: The Fire Department had a champion boxer they dared the police to beat in a charity bout. None of the known challengers seemed up to the task. The interagency rivalry was fierce.

A rookie with just 21 months on the job, Putkowski was approached by the four-star Chief of Department and asked if he thought he could do it. The former Marine champion middleweight replied he thought he could.

Putkowski was promised that if he defeated the firefighter, he could name his next assignment. Putkowski won, and he asked to be assigned to the Bomb Squad. He was transferred on November 18, 1988.

Institutional Memory

By 2004 Putkowski was a senior man, mentoring young officers and quietly practicing his own skills; re-creating bombs inside fire extinguishers and letters and then timing himself disarming them. A bout with a bomb is not something Putkowski or any other senior man is prepared to lose.

"We...have to respond to a lot of devices or events. We have to try to figure out what's inside the container. The container could be a vehicle; it could be a small box. We may have to open up the box and render the device safe by cutting a wire. If there are lives at stake...we have to act right away. So we might not be able to use the tools that are assigned to us."

Whatever technology is available, a fully accomplished tech has to be able to approach a package with his two hands and a scalpel or a folding knife and have the confidence to unwrap it and defuse it. Senior techs like Putkowski worry that an over-reliance on technology could ultimately be the cause of a bomb tech's death.

"The best training tool I have to offer a new guy is time on the street," Putkowski explained. "In the 100 years of the Bomb Squad, we have lost six bomb technicians."

Putkowski's other training tool is shelved in the basement. It is a history of thousands of devices successfully defused, carefully documented and kept in a set of boxes and binders and folders on the gray metal racks there.

"From the beginning in 1903 you had the Italians that used bombs for extortion. During World War I, the Germans came in as saboteurs...the Hell's Angels...the Ku Klux Klan, the FALN...the Cubans...the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers. They all used explosive devices to further their cause. You can look back at their case folders and see the way they operated....

"I come down to this room about three times per week. I look at old case folders; I read old case folders. I would say if I put together all of the time I've spent down here, I've spent two years to learn about past improvised explosive devices, past explosions, how they handled past explosions, how they rendered devices safe, why devices went off, why devices didn't go off, what group set the devices off; the signatures of these different groups."

To Putkowski, this is all a part of his discipline. He grounds himself in his mundane day-to-day squad routines. "He will never leave five minutes early," Sgt. Anthony Biondolilo explained. He and his wife live in a modest home, they share one car, and he would walk down to the ferry, cross to Manhattan, and walk down a street to his death if his job required it.

"Joe knows if it means he has to die, he is still going to do it," Sgt. Biondolilo explained. "That is his call to duty."

Detectives in Rank Only

The job of a detective is to detect. The job of a bomb technician is to stop a bomb from going off. Despite the fact that the Bomb Squad officers hold the rank of detective, they prefer the title "bomb technician." Their job stops with the field investigation of the suspicious package or device.

For the tech, each day starts with a clean desk. The introspection of figuring out who did it and why; the building of case folders; the slogging through the time-consuming construction of a court case is left to the other detectives in the Detective Bureau.

The Bomb Squad is a part of the NYPD Detective Bureau's Forensic Investigative Division, which includes the police lab, the latent print section, the firearms analysis section, and the Crime Scene Unit. In other words, the FID is a group of field investigative units backed by laboratory forensic science.

Once a device is rendered safe, the Bomb Squad's role is to lend forensic support to the unit assigned to follow the case through. The squad helps Crime Scene identify and properly tag important evidence. Its members explain the technical aspects of how the device was made, why it might have been made that way, how to identify similar devices should they be found-all of the elements the detectives or intelligence officers might need to formulate an analysis, or a context. Should a court case develop, a squad member supplies the expert testimony.

How Bomb Techs Stay Sharp

The bomb technician, like other highly skilled mechanics-microsurgeons, test pilots, Formula One race car mechanics, or astronauts-is completely focused on his field.

Practice is second nature. Reading technical journals is a steady activity. Reviewing each bomb that explodes anywhere in the world is the subject of daily squad discussion.

Duplicating and disarming the most interesting devices goes without saying. Testing new tools; improving techniques; attending seminars on robot handling, disruption techniques, large vehicle bombs, booby traps, and the use of various kinds of detonators and explosives are the subjects of schedules posted on a chalkboard. The board also includes notices and sign-up lists for training with other units in the Police Department and with bomb squads in neighboring jurisdictions.

Richard Esposito covers Homeland Security and criminal justice for ABC News. Ted Gerstein is a producer for ABC's "Nightline." They have both won numerous national journalism awards.

Tags: Bomb Squads, NYPD, Books for Cops


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