Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

DU hosts explosives class for law enforcement

explosives training

A bomb detonates at DU's forensics explosives range during training for law enforcement. What can 15 pounds of explosives do to a van? Watch the video. PHOTO BY: Wayne Armstrong.

This week, DU’s Denver Research Institute hosted more than 30 police and firefighters from across the country in a federal pilot program about the dangers of improvised explosive devices. The event was held at DU’s forensics explosives range.

These homemade bombs — often crafted from chemicals available at grocery stores and hobby shops — pack a powerful punch, says Dave Williams, a government-trained explosives expert who worked with more than 20 federal and local experts to teach the three-day course. 

Each homemade device has its own signature, and trained responders can collect the evidence needed to thwart terrorists at home if they know what to look for.

“We want to teach these guys what to do in the first 15 or 30 minutes at the scene,” Williams says. “People can wander off or bits of evidence can be caught up in the tire of a fire truck and disappear.”

The Research Institute’s range, located amid wandering herds of cattle on acres of prairie east of Aurora, is usually dedicated to forensics study and the institute’s work through the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center. Much of it is confidential, but for this rare unclassified demonstration, television and newspaper crews were invited.

In addition to extensive classroom work, students got a close-up look at the danger of homemade explosives. Even the simplest devices, such as pipe bombs packed with simple black powder available at hunting supply stores, can be deadly. Williams says his course is critical in driving home that message. 

“This is about the same thickness of your car,” he says after detonating a pipe bomb down range, holding up a piece of bomb-blasted steel left over from the explosion. “So there’s a good chance it could go right through your gas tank … We have three rules about pipe bombs: Never touch a pipe bomb; never touch a pipe bomb; never touch a pipe bomb.”

He set off another blast fueled by household chemicals inside a chicken carcass. The explosion ripped the animal flesh and provided a graphic illustration of what even a small bomb can do.

Blast after blast, instructors demonstrated letter bombs, TNT, dynamite, C4 plastic explosive, gasoline bombs and a hand grenade, all demonstrating the devastating effects of seemingly harmless chemicals. A 15-pound fertilizer bomb highlighted the demonstrations, reducing a full-size fan to scrap and hurling chunks of metal hundreds of feet in the air.

The pilot program at DRI’s range was jointly organized by the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office and the National Sheriff’s Association. Eventually, with the help of a $3 million federal grant, Williams hopes to expand the program and offer it up to 10 times a year at ranges around the country.

And for anyone wondering why they can’t take liquids on an airplane, Williams’ team mixes the same readily available chemicals that suspected terrorists in London were planning to bring aboard flights. The resulting blast from a 16-ounce bottle of liquid shook the metal bleachers 100 feet away.

This, as airplanes from nearby Denver International Airport flew overhead.

“That could bring down a plane,” Williams says. “That’s pretty energetic for something you find in a grocery store.”

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