Bomb squad members suit up to face danger
While everybody else is running away from a possible explosive device, UI police Sgt. Aaron Landers' job is to walk toward it— in an effort to keep everybody else safe.
Landers, 41, is one of the men who put their lives on the line about a dozen times a year, donning a bomb suit for the University of Illinois and Champaign police bomb squad, sometimes also known as an explosive ordnance disposal team.
When somebody sees a suspicious package or police receive a report of a possible explosive device in East Central Illinois, the team of six University of Illinois and Champaign police officers is sent to the scene to examine the item and safely dispose of it.
Service on the bomb squad is voluntary, and UI Deputy Police Chief (and former bomb squad member) Skip Frost says it takes somebody with a lot of courage to wear the bomb suit.
"When you put the suit on, it means you are in a possible dangerous situation," Frost said.
Landers, a 15-year veteran of the UI police department, had extensive experience working with explosive devices before he joined the campus force.
Landers served in the Air Force in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. There he built bombs, did some demolition work and performed missile testing.
"Since I have extensive bomb experience, serving on the bomb squad here was a natural progression for me," Landers said.
The bomb squad's newest member, UI police Officer Ryan Lepp, also has wartime experience with explosives, having served in the Army in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"We basically found and destroyed roadside bombs," Lepp said.
Landers said the UI and Champaign police bomb squad includes three Champaign and three UI police officers, together responsible for the nine-county area covered by State Police District 10.
"But we have gone all over the state, and we are all federally deputized in case extra bomb techs are needed for a situation like the Oklahoma City bombing," he said. "I can jump into a plane, go anywhere in the country, and still technically be a police officer."
Landers said his team has dealt with live grenades, mortar shells and military items brought home by veterans from World War II, Vietnam or another war.
In May, the team safely removed and blew up a shell that the squad believed still had explosives in it and a larger mortar round in Tuscola. Both were discovered inside a home where a man had been discovered dead the day before.
In February, the disposal team removed an artillery shell found in the corner of a liquor cabinet at Lu & Denny's tavern in Tolono.
In 2011, the team removed and destroyed an old military explosive device that was discovered in Danville.
In 2010, the bomb squad safety removed a German World War II-era "stick grenade," typically screwed onto a stick then hurled, from a first-floor closet in the 600 block of West Church Street in Champaign.
That same year the squad removed two World War II-style hand grenades from the basement of a house in the 1100 block of West Springfield Avenue in Champaign.
After a police officer volunteers to serve on the bomb squad, he or she undergoes a physical examination, and the FBI does a full background check.
The person then heads to Huntsville, Ala., to undergo a six-week hazardous-devices school operated by the Army and the FBI.
"They teach us the whole game, from how to operate a robot to rendering safe an improvised explosive device — that's anything somebody puts together to blow something up.
"For instance, a grenade is not an improvised explosive device, but a pipe bomb is."
'Facing your head'
Landers said the bomb squad's busiest time is around Independence Day, a period when they receive custody of illegal fireworks.
"We collect quite a bit of civilian fireworks, but occasionally we get some Class B fireworks like the kind the cities shoot off on July 4."
Landers said the team also disposes of industrial explosives that businesses like power plants don't have any other way to get rid of.
The team takes the items to a bomb range in Vermilion County and disposes of them.
Landers said his first experience dealing with live explosives locally took place a few weeks after he joined the bomb squad in 1999.
Somebody put a pipe bomb in a tool shed in Urbana, not far from the new county jail, with the intent of blowing it up at a different location.
"We got a search warrant, and it was my job to put on the bomb suit and dismantle the bomb," he said.
Landers donned the suit and slowly walked into the shed. He immediately saw the pipe bomb sitting on a shelf.
"I was very nervous because the pipe bomb was on a shelf," Landers said. "Normally we find explosive devices closer to the ground. It is pretty unnerving when you see it facing your head."
Landers managed to remain calm, rendered the bomb safe and removed it.
Landers said criminals often build items more sophisticated than pipe bombs.
"People make their own explosives," he said. "We have seen chemical bombs where people take tin foil, put stuff in it, shake it up and it creates a gas."
When the bomb squad is called to the site of a suspicious package, the team first sends a robot to check it out and possibly move it so it's not near people.
If the team determines that a living presence is needed, Landers or one of his teammates puts on the 85-pound suit.
The entire suit is contained within a black zippered bag the team keeps, along with the robot, on its truck. The suit is so bulky that it takes a second person to help put it on.
Landers said it can be very hot wearing the suit, especially during the summer.
"If it is 90 degrees outside, it feels like you are in an oven," he said.
Landers said it is important for the people wearing the bomb suits to stay physically fit.
"Even if you are in good shape, you are only effective for about 20 to 30 minutes before you feel like passing out," he said.
Landers first puts on the pants, which are equipped with suspenders. Velcro is used to wrap the pants around the waist and legs.
Next he dons what the bomb squad members call the diaper, an armored piece that wraps around the waist and crotch.
Then Landers receives help putting on an armored jacket with a tall collar to protect the neck area.
The suit is made of Kevlar, a synthetic fiber often used in body armor.
"It is supposed to keep bulky chunks of shrapnel from coming through," Landers said.
The suits don't come with gloves because bomb squad members sometimes need their fingers to deal with delicate explosive devices.
"If you have gloves on, it is more difficult to maneuver," Landers said.
Next Landers puts on the 9-pound helmet — equipped with a visor, a battery back, a flashlight and a fan (so it doesn't fog up) — all controlled by a panel on his wrist.
The helmet includes a radio that Landers can use to talk to the rest of his team.
"But there usually isn't a whole lot of chatter between us," Landers said. "If you are going down there, you usually know what you are going to do."
When Landers gets to the bomb or suspicious package, he looks at it, X-rays it with an X-ray source and screen he carries with him and sometimes uses a water cannon to disrupt it with a powerful blast of water.
"We often use water to disrupt it because water can't compress and because it dissipates after a period of time.
"When we disrupt a device, 99 percent of the time it is safe. The only thing we are worried about is the explosive material. We will either take it somewhere else to blow it up or save it to use as evidence."
Items to be used as evidence are often taken to an FBI lab in Washington or occasionally to a state lab in Springfield.
Landers said it is a great feeling when he has successfully disarmed a bomb or rendered an explosive device safe for the rest of us.
"There are very few jobs in police work where you can have satisfaction right way, but this is one of them," he said.