APG scientists who destroyed chemical weapons at sea speak at Bel Air library

Aberdeen Proving Ground chemist Brian O'Donnell and civil engineer Amy Dean shared their unique tale of chemical adventure on the high seas at Harford County Public Library's Science Cafe on Wednesday in Bel Air. (Bryna Zumer/Aegis video)

What could be harder than destroying 600 tons of Syrian chemical weapons? Doing it while floating on a ship in the Mediterranean.

Aberdeen Proving Ground chemist Brian O'Donnell and civil engineer Amy Dean shared their unique tale of chemical adventure on the high seas at Harford County Public Library's Science Cafe on Wednesday, held at the Bel Air branch.


The scientists, who have each worked on the proving ground for about two decades, were drawn into a rare international expedition when the Army was looking to destroy Syrian chemical weapons as quickly as possible, based on President Barack Obama's warning about that country's weapons in 2012.

After several countries declined to host the process, the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, along with the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, decided the highly politicized effort could best be done on the open seas.

The two agencies retrofitted a Merchant Mariner ship called MV Cape Ray not just to hold mobile hydrolysis units but a crew of 64 Army civilians who had to juggle sea-sickness, tight living quarters and destroy weapons in 100-degree heat while wearing personal protective equipment, O'Donnell said.

"This was an amazing team effort," he said of the collaboration between JPM-E and ECBC, noting the mustard gas and DF, used to produce sarin, were neutralized in a record 42 days, with the help of seven to 10 total countries.

The crew, meanwhile, had to spend 152 days, about 5 1/2 months, onboard the Cape Ray alongside 10,692 tons of liquid that was stored on the ship until it could be unloaded to treatment facilities.

They were ready to go on April 7, 2013, but a delay kept the ship in limbo for more than two months, O'Donnell noted.

"The crew sat there until June 30, and they practiced and practiced," he said, adding the scientists had to make do with whatever they had on the ship for all their needs.

"We couldn't run to Home Depot and get parts when we needed it," he said. "We got it done in 42 days; we promised 60 days. We were also terribly motivated to get home."


The unique mission had more than a few challenges, including the constant need to keep the ship balanced as the chemical neutralization frequently changed the Cape Ray's weight and center of gravity, he said.

"I spent an inordinate amount of time with the chief mate, and this was driving him crazy," O'Donnell joked.

Also, "even working with the international community, to find a port for us to dock on wasn't easy," he said.

When the Cape Ray landed at a port in Italy, local officials shut down the port and put a security perimeter around the area. O'Donnell said they were eager for the ship to leave.

O'Donnell said he almost wants to call the whole program "a miracle."

"The fact that we were able to pull this off in the amount of time that we did is truly unbelievable," he said. "Having been involved [at APG] for 20 years, it was fantastic."


Dean said working on a ship brought unique challenges, as did the intense time pressure.

"This was measured in hours and days. Every day we would have something that was required from us, something that was due, and the conditions were always changing," she said.

Former scientists Lionus Young, of Churchville, and Larry Vande Kieft, of Street, were among those who came to the event.

"I thought it was extremely interesting," Young, who retired from a math career in 1988, said.

Several Advanced Placement chemistry students from Fallston High School said they also enjoyed the talk.

"I thought it was very interesting because I didn't know the chemistry that was involved in it," Temi Afolabi, a junior from Fallston, said.

Caitlin Phillips, a senior from Forest Hill, added it gave her ideas for colleges and jobs.

"I thought it was really cool," she said. "I liked how they didn't only do the chemistry side of it, they did the industrial side of it with the engineering, too."