MT. GOLES, Kosovo - Multinational Battle Group-East responded to the largest unexploded bomb in the Kosovo Security Force’s recent history after receiving a report for what was thought to be two rocket launchers in the woods.
Kosovo is considered to be one of the most heavily mined regions in the world. After the last war, many munitions were not accounted for, some were left in caches, bunkers, or buried underground. The British MK13 1000 pound bomb was found near a site that was a well-known Yugoslavian stronghold during the 1999 conflict. The ammunition bunkers there were heavily bombed by NATO during the war. This bomb was most likely dropped by the British Royal Air Force in support of the NATO mission at the time, said Capt. Frank Pangelinan, commander of the 217th Explosives Ordnance Disposal Company.
Excavators doing work near a small industrial facility near Mt. Goles found the bomb while using a front loader to clear the earth. Thinking it was a large rock, they struck the bomb twice while trying to break it apart. They ended up moving it 250 meters behind the facility, before calling it in to the authorities.
A team from the 217th responded from Camp Bondsteel. They met up with the Kosovo Security Forces EOD team and received their briefing from the Kosovo Police, who had secured the area around the found unexploded ordnance.
Sgt. Valeriy Didychenko is an EOD technician deployed with the California National Guard unit in support of NATO’s KFOR mission. He explained the importance of responding to reports quickly.
“Our time from getting the call to leaving the base is never longer than 30 minutes,” he said. “It is always important because you don’t know how what condition the UXO is in is out there. It is always a danger. Especially if it is located near buildings, or power lines, or near main water lines. I mean, wind can set off some of these things. So it is very important that we respond to these things, and do so quickly.”
When they arrived on scene, it was already dark, and nearly impossible to identify the object. With the Kosovo Police in control of the area, the teams decided to return the next day. In the morning light, they were able to clearly identify the object and begin the next stage of researching the object. Along with the KSF EOD team, the Swiss and Austrians provided additional assistance for the mission.
“We looked up the hazards associated with it,” said Didychenko. “The explosives it contains, the fuse itself, how it functions, hazards associated with it. At that point, the process kicks in. We need to decide, what are we going to do with it?”
The mission of an EOD company is to disarm UXO’s in their area of operations, and to do so the safest way possible. Assess the risk, assess the threat and make a decision, said Didychenko.
The teams decided not to move the object to a separate and distant safe area for disposal. Moving it too far in the current condition would cause a serious threat to other people’s lives. Instead, they chose to distance it from the nearby building using steel cables, armored vehicles and heavy equipment to move the bomb safely, and from a distance. Moving it further towards the base of the hill would provide more protection from both the blast and the fragmentation.
“It’s a huge piece of ordnance and that building, was in danger,” said Didychenko. “We went through all the possibilities and we picked the best course of action. The bomb was on top of the hill, facing a building, so we wanted to move it into a little spot, like a ravine off to the side of the hill so that it wouldn’t be facing the building directly. We wanted to mitigate some of the risks associated with fragmentation. We moved it down, built a big earth berm around it. We went through all of our EOD procedures at that time. Made sure all safety procedures were met. And, then we detonated it.”
The protection that the berms provided, along with moving it, helped to preserve the physical building that was nearby, causing minimum damage. There was no damage from fragmentation, but the blast from the thousand pound bomb did cause some cosmetic damage.
“We did everything in the safest manner possible,” said Didychenko. “We had enough distance, cover, we extensively made sure the area was clear. This area has a lot of locals in it, especially shepherds and farmers. It’s a very wooded area, so there was a lot of scanning the area, driving through to make sure everyone was out. “
Didychenko emphasized that his team’s mission is twofold. The highest priority is the preservation of human life. The second is preserving physical property. To completely remove the bomb from where it lay, to a more ideal location, would have put too many lives at risk.
“If we had tried to move this, based on the condition of the fuse when we found it, we would have been putting people’s lives in danger,” he said. “The truck driver, the loader, all the people involved would be in danger.”
Didychenko said no one was hurt during the mission. The building had minor damage, but it is still intact. The machinery is still there. People can still function and produce their goods.
EOD teams may never know what their next call is going to be. They could get a call for small ammunition shells, and uncover another giant bomb. They could get a call for rocket launchers, and find old bottle caps alongside the road. Regardless, the EOD teams are always ready for whatever they encounter. Every day is like flipping a coin. For Didychenko, this mission, although the biggest, was nothing new.
“Just another mission,” he said. “You don’t ever expect it to be an easy day; it’s just another day in the office.”
The 217th EOD team has responded to 94 incidents since arriving in Kosovo in September 2012 in conjunction with the KSF EOD team. In that same time, they have disposed of 161 ordnance items, 53 of them since the start of 2013.