DANGEROUS JOB He hopes his job is never a blast LaBrocco says bomb squad has been very busy as of late.


More than anything else in life, Richard LaBrocco says, he loves to glide his 30-foot sailboat out of Bodkin Creek onto Chesapeake Bay and let nature soothe his soul.

And maybe his nerves.

LaBrocco, 59, disarms bombs for a living.

For 37 years, this master edge-walker has drawn a regular paycheck making sure that things like nuclear warheads, a 60-pound block of Chinese TNT, land mines, cluster bomblets, dynamite and pipe bombs don't explode in his face.

When the Persian Gulf showdown brought threats of terrorist action in the United States, LaBrocco and the rest of the state fire marshal's team of explosives experts suddenly found their risky business increasing as never before.

From Jan. 1 to yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the 10-member team conducted a record 734 investigations: mostly vehicles left near the terminal and unattended luggage, but also a pair of bomb hoaxes that forced two passenger jets to make unscheduled landings.

No explosives were found at BWI during the two-month period. And though it was a tense time, disregarding stress is one of the keys to LaBrocco's longevity in his profession.

"I can't wonder if I'm going to get killed every time I go on a call," the Columbia resident says. "If I was like that, I wouldn't have lasted in this business. I would have been a puddle."

Since 1974, LaBrocco has been what many consider the premier bomb technician with the fire marshal's office. Before that, he served for 20 years in the Army as an explosives disposal specialist and retired as a master sergeant.

The airport investigations involved a team of two state troopers, a bomb technician and an explosives-sniffing dog, according to Al Ward of the fire marshal's office.

Ward says bomb squad members also have responded to 76 calls this year for suspicious packages or letters, bomb threats and explosive devices, compared with 46 calls at this time last year.

The 1991 investigations included two pipe-bomb explosions in Easton and a suspicious package addressed in Arabic to a Bel Air family.

"The pipe bombs that went off in Easton were part of a feud going on among some teen-agers," says Ward. "And the package was innocent. A family that previously lived in the house where the package was received had relatives in the Middle East."

The war against Iraq has ended, and some U.S. troops are returning home, but the bomb squad's vigilance remains high.

Morris D. Busby, State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, said at a Senate hearing last week that the threat of terrorism could increase after Saddam Hussein's humiliating defeat.

"There has been an aftermath of terrorism to every conflict in the Middle East for the last three decades and, although we hope it will not be the case in this one, we must assume and plan for the worst," Busby testified.

Since the start of the war, five people have been killed and about 50 wounded in more than 100 terrorist attacks around the world, according to State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler.

Just one incident, a bomb blast in the Philippines, was directly linked to Iraq. Two Iraqi Embassy staff members were expelled ** from the Philippines following the explosion.

None of the attacks was in the United States.


A State Department spokesman said last week that "although the terrorist threat in the U.S. might have been lessened," precautions will continue at all U.S. airports, and international travelers should check travel advisories.

Heightened security remains in effect at BWI and the two other major airports closest to Baltimore, Dulles and National, both in Northern Virginia.

Capt. John Cook, head of the Maryland State Police intelligence unit, says any terrorist threat here is "very minimal, but the fact we're having this conversation is proof that terrorism is alive, a concern."

And no one knows that better than Dick LaBrocco, who confidently states he can dismantle any bomb, no matter the maker, no matter the wallop. Whether it's Semtex, the European-manufactured plastic explosive, or compacted fertilizer attached to a detonator, he says he can neutralize it.

"First, if I'm scared I shouldn't be in the business," he says. "Once I have my tools, there is no problem."

Most of LaBrocco's exposure to various forms of explosives was during the Vietnam War. There, he defused dud enemy mortar and artillery shells -- "Forty percent of the ordnance that fell on U.S. positions turned out to be duds," he says -- and probed for land mines and became intimately acquainted with booby traps.


His favorite episode came when the Viet Cong attached 60 pounds of Chinese-made TNT to pallets of live U.S. artillery shells in an ammunition dump. The timing device, a common kitchen timer, showed three minutes left before detonation.

"Actually, it was one of the easier jobs I've done," LaBrocco says. "I traced the wires to the batteries and made it harmless. The time I had to complete the job did offer some pressure, though."

LaBrocco traces the confidence he carries to his training at the military bomb disposal school at Indian Head, Md., which serves all branches of the service.

"When anybody graduates from that school after six months, you can disarm anything from any country," he says.

Three other agencies in Maryland have bomb squads: Police in Baltimore and in Baltimore County have special bomb units, and the Prince George's County Fire Department has experts who respond to calls relating to explosives.

While Baltimore County reported only a slight increase in calls, officials in the city and Prince George's County said calls rose dramatically in January and February.

Lt. Robert Kues, who heads the city squad, said "our responses doubled and tripled during the first part of the war. Now we are back to normal."

Capt. Bill Goddard, commander of the Prince George's bomb squad, said his unit's calls increased "300 to 400 percent at the height of the war."

Since working for the state, LaBrocco has disarmed mostly pipe bombs and other primitive devices -- which he calls extremely dangerous because of their instability.

On Jan. 16, the first day of the air war with Iraq, LaBrocco helped search a jetliner that was forced to land at BWI because of a bomb threat received at another location.


Word of the threat was relayed to the plane's captain, and he was so anxious to land his aircraft that he blew four tires on touchdown, LaBrocco says.

"They put the plane on a special runway away from everyone and the captain, obviously shaken, came down the ramp saying to me, "Get away from the plane, get away."

When the airliner was evacuated, LaBrocco and the other bomb-detection team members went to work.

"The trained dogs are OK to a point, but I can do a better job than the dogs in trying to find something on an aircraft," LaBrocco says. "I go all over the compartments inside the plane, I go into the wheel wells, everywhere."

The bomb threat proved to be a hoax.

That first day of the air war also saw LaBrocco investigate 14 pieces of unattended luggage and two vehicles left near the airport terminal buildings.

"Our entire unit has been that busy since then," he says.

As another testament to his confidence and skill, LaBrocco says he hopes to work until age 62 and retire from state service and the bomb business.

"My favorite dream is, I'd love to sail my boat Irmgard around the world with my wife," LaBrocco says.

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