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The Big-Bang Brotherhood

There's a Swagger to the Members of the LAPD Bomb Squad. It's What It Takes to Make the Lonely Walk. And Never Has the World Been More Explosive.

September 21, 2003|John Balzar | John Balzar is a senior features writer for The Times.

A thousand lessons must be learned here. Then a thousand more. One of them is that metal can attract a spark of static electricity. And in the proximity of an unstable chemical like dynamite, even the tiniest of sparks could be the very last thing that happens in your life.

It bears notice that no one in this room is wearing a steel wristwatch.

Might as well be as cautious as you can. Particularly if you've already thrown so many ordinary ideas of prudence to the wind.

It is 6 a.m. at the bunker-like building not far from Glendale, the morning shift for men and women suited up in Nomex black. They say there are two kinds of police officers on the Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad: those who are drawn to it, and those who cannot imagine it.

Crazy?

Look around the room. There is a swagger to these people, lots of muscle too. They greet each other with a kind of fraternal joshing that occurs among those who share a compact with peril. But crazy? Well, the world outside can be a crazy place. And to borrow an old wheeze, only the madness on the periphery can safeguard the sanity of the center. It wouldn't do if everyone flinched. So when the telephone rings here, it always sounds a spooky question: Is this the moment? Will one of them be called on to "go downrange"? To "make the lonely walk"? To "get on" a bomb? To peer at a rat's nest of slender wires, connected to a blinking LED that is hooked to a battery that is duct-taped to a doughy brick of C-4 with all those angry, agitated molecules eager to part company and bring down a building and everyone in it?

Joe Pau, three stripes up and one stripe down. It's a name that can stop a conversation, provided you've entered the fellowship of this nation's law enforcement bomb techs. With his big, rimless glasses, thinning hair, graying Groucho mustache, enlarging jowls and subtle but unmistakable saunter, a combat knife sewn into the back of his flak jacket, Pau is the ranking detective here, 26 years on the force, 21 in bombs. Some of the essential equipment now used nationwide was designed with help from Pau. The tactics and SOPs of the LAPD and other agencies similarly reflect his thinking.

On Monday morning, Pau begins the week with a muster. All of the important calls from the past seven days are reviewed. A hand grenade had brought out the squad. Also a bomb wrapped in a cardboard tube. Generically, they are called IEDs--improvised explosive devices. Were they handled properly?

"I'm a real pain in the ass about this," Pau reminds everyone.

The procedures for confronting bombs are almost as tricky as bombs themselves: Evacuations, which begin with a 300-foot ring around any suspected bomb and grow larger according to the threat, are seldom flexible. Likewise other procedures. But there has to be room for judgment too. Sometimes the clumsy bomb suit is a hazard when you approach a suspect device in a difficult location. Then you have to go downrange with nothing more than a puny flak jacket for protection. The meeting is a combined postgraduate exam in electronics, chemistry, physics and urban improv. How was the grenade determined to be harmless? What would have looked different if it wasn't? What can be said about the cardboard bomb leaking powder? Behind every bomb call are eerie layers of questions: Could the device have been booby-trapped? Might it have been a decoy to distract attention from a real bomb set nearby? Could the call have been a setup: A bomber making a dry run to watch how the police respond so they can be outwitted next time? The techs explain their moves, their thinking. What everyone wants to hear is whether Pau can find a flaw in their method.

Pau will retire at the end of the year. He is going to leave a hole in the LAPD. The lieutenant above him and the 20 men and one woman below him want to hear everything he knows. He hasn't seen it all, but he's seen more than almost anyone. He's seen the mangled corpse of his mentor on the floor after a failed attempt to defuse a double pipe bomb. He's walked downrange on a pickup truck parked on the street with 2,000 pounds of explosives, and he defused it. The LAPD reported it was the largest vehicle bomb ever "rendered safe" in the U.S.

If a tech missed something or didn't think of something, the bomb squad trusts Pau more than anybody to divine what it was. Let's not have any empty chairs at next Monday's muster.

Pau obliges them. He arrives most days a couple of hours before his shift to drink a cup of coffee and read a paperback, and to put his mind in whatever unfathomable, heightened state is necessary to face each day as if it's going to blow up in your face.

"I don't want to have to go tell their families that something happened because I screwed up," he says coldly.

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