INSIDE A TERROR TASK FORCE
For Bomb Technicians, It's Never a Drill
technicians are trained to recognize
and disrupt all kinds of explosives,
many modeled on devices used in real-life
agent Pat Race was on his way home to meet
his wife and in-laws for dinner one Friday
in April when he got an urgent call: a suspicious
package was spotted on a platform at Washington,
D.C.’s busy train station. Race, a
bomb technician, swung his truck around and
drove straight to Union Station to do what
bomb techs are uniquely wired to do—move
(albeit gingerly) toward potentially lethal
danger and render it safe.
Once upon a time the suspicious luggage—which
caught the attention of a security dog trained
to sniff out drugs and bomb-making materials—would
have been dutifully examined by a station
attendant. But since 9/11, the threat of
terrorism—and bombings of commuter
and subway trains in Spain (2004) and Great
Britain (2005)—has ramped up the level
When the working dog “alerted on” two
suitcases on April 21, police at Union Station
called the Metropolitan Police Department,
which called the FBI’s Washington Field
Office (WFO) where Race works as a bomb tech
on a Joint Terrorism Task Force. On the scene,
Race joined three bomb techs from the Metropolitan
Police Department and two more from the U.S.
Capitol Police, whose domain lies just a
few city blocks from the train station. Together
with other first responders, they established
a perimeter and incident command post and
set up a “forward” space where
the bomb techs could ply their delicate trade
in relative peace.
“We really, really emphasize working
together,” says Race, one of the 50
to 60 civilian bomb techs from nearly a dozen
law enforcement agencies operating in the
area. “Our skills complement each other.”
from a solitary vocation, bomb techs tend
to work in teams, having all trained at
the same place, the Hazardous
Devices School in Huntsville,
Alabama. The program, run by the FBI and
the U.S. Army, trains technicians to recognize
and disrupt all kinds of explosives, many
modeled on devices used in real-life events.
When they aren’t responding to calls,
bomb techs are training for the next event.
“No day is the same,” Race says. “When
we get a call, we don’t know whether
something’s going to be real or not.” Mostly
they’re not. Contents of “suspicious
packages” found harmless included Washington
Nationals season tickets and dirty diapers.
A beeping garbage bag (it was a smoke alarm)
prompted another call, and there are scores
of “ham-sandwich” calls—when
an abandoned lunch is the culprit.
WFO’s bomb squad averages two to three
calls a week, though it varies. “You
can go a week without a call-out,” Race
says. “Sometimes you can’t go
two hours. We’ve had three at once.
All of them ended up being nothing.”
At the train station, the bomb techs divvied
up duties and gear—one communicated
with higher-ups, four did prep work and loaded
X-rays to scan the luggage, and one donned
a 90-pound protective suit to approach the
suitcases and perform diagnostic tests.
“I really like the challenge of problem
solving,” Race says, describing the
appeal of his line of work. “A real
bomber has all the answers and you have none.
Our job is to figure it out so nobody gets
The suspicious luggage didn’t contain
explosives, just clothes, perfumes, electronics,
and a variety of exotic cooking spices. The
coast was clear, this time.
“It’s a real threat here,” Race
says, describing the D.C. area. “It’s
something we deal with every day.”
the D.C. Terror Task Force, Part 1