Eight months ago, the massive destruction left by a bomb planted under the World Trade Center gave pause to even the most experienced experts.
The explosion killed six people, injured 1,000, blew a 150-square-foot hole through the center's parking garage, and brought down tons of debris, spewing heavy steel like dust specks, and choking the tower with smoke.
Within hours, Special Agent Dan Boeh, an explosives expert with the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office in Baltimore, had packed a bag and was on his way to New York. The assignment: to lead the investigation of what Agent Boeh would soon call "the mother of all bombings."
Among the tons of rubble was an important clue that his team quickly discovered -- a twisted piece of car frame bearing the vehicle identification number of a yellow rental van that carried the bomb. Police made their first arrest six days after the explosion.
Today, Agent Boeh is scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C., and, in a ceremony at the Treasury Department, be honored as its top law enforcement agent. The award singles him out from among thousands of ATF, Customs, Secret Service and Internal Revenue Service agents.
"That bombing hit the heart and soul of Americans throughout the country because any one of our friends or family could have been there," said Ronald K. Noble, assistant secretary of the treasury for law enforcement. "We thought Dan was the unsung, anonymous hero."
Agent Boeh, 47, brought to the task 17 years of experience as an ATF agent and is considered one of the field's finest investigators. He leads one of the ATF's four National Response Teams, investigating major bombings from Virginia to Maine.
People who work with him agree that Agent Boeh has a knack for making order out of chaos. And in the World Trade Center explosion, the magnitude of the chaos was beyond anything the investigators had seen.
They arrived to find a blackened, seven-story deep hole in an area that was left so structurally unstable they had to wait for engineers to shore it up before they could get to work.
"We were absolutely awe-struck at the size of it," said Special Agent Malcolm Brady, now in charge of the Cleveland ATF office. He has worked with Agent Boeh for more than 10 years and supervised the World Trade Center case.
"Danny came up with one of the basic ideas. He said, 'Let's not look at it as a massive scene. Let's look at it as six or seven small scenes.' And that's exactly what we did."
Agent Boeh also was determined to zero in on the areas he thought would produce the best evidence.
He identified the precise spot where the explosion occurred and six working sites around it. He had investigators rappel into the hole to gather evidence, which was pulled up in buckets. Others scoured the ground on hands and knees for clues.
Agent Boeh said he was surprised at how quickly the case came together.
"Usually these things take a long time, but if you can take something from that scene and connect it to a person, you can solve it," he said.
Amiable and unassuming, Agent Boeh also had the right touch for dealing with the multitude of other police agencies brought onto the case, including the New York City bomb squad, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the FBI.
"Up there you had a lot of different egos involved in a bombing investigation," said Baltimore ATF Special Agent Roy Cheeks, who worked with him on the case. "Dan has the ability to take what could be a tense situation, make everyone get along, then convince them to do it the way Dan wants it done."
His reputation for solving arson and bombing cases began early in his career when he was assigned to investigate a bombing that killed a man at a shipyard in Sparrows Point. By recovering microscopic plastic chips that the manufacturer had added to the dynamite, he was able to identify when it had been made and who had purchased it. The suspect was convicted and sentenced to 33 years in prison.
The award he will receive today "is almost humbling," he said. "I know there are many agents out there doing good work. I feel really honored."