Local News

Experts Count 29 Explosives at Scrap Plant

Posted February 14, 2008 6:48 a.m. EST
Updated February 15, 2008 10:08 a.m. EST

— Detonations of unexploded military ordnance found at a Raleigh scrap-metal recycling plant will continue Friday, and authorities said road closures and evacuations of nearby residences will continue indefinitely.

By Thursday night, munitions experts from Fort Bragg had found 29 explosives in bales of scrap metal at Raleigh Metals Recycling. Those explosives included three 90-millimeter rifle rounds and 18 anti-tank rockets.

A WRAL News team has counted 26 detonations since Tuesday night.

Jim Sughrue, spokesman for the Raleigh Police Department, said munitions that were the most easily reached were destroyed first, followed by devices found inside a hopper in the plant.

The Army experts began examining bales of scrap metal Thursday afternoon to determine if more devices had been compacted inside them, he said.

"Because they can't see everything in (the bales), it's impossible to know how many rounds there might be," Sughrue said. "There are too many variables and too many unknowns right now" to know when the process will end.

Another day of demolitions required police to close Garner Road again near the plant and to move nearby residents away, including those living in the Biltmore Hills apartment complex across from the plant, Sughrue said.

The apartment complex and other residences were evacuated Tuesday night. Residents were allowed back into their homes Wednesday night, then told they had to leave again Thursday morning, and Sughrue said the pattern would continue.

Resident Willis McClain said the indefinite movement has been hard on him and his 18-year-old daughter Alisha.

"Everybody don't have a place to go," McClain said. "Thank God I have family that was there for me and my daughter."

Raleigh Metals Recycling owner Greg Brown acknowledged the difficulties created by the road closure and evacuations, but said he will not push the Fort Bragg team to finish quickly its inspection and detonations.

"We're losing money. My neighbors, unfortunately, are losing money. But this is not a process that should be speeded up. It has to be done correctly," Brown said.

"These are very nasty weapons. Somehow or another, they didn't cause major damage," he said. "We're again thankful that no one was hurt terribly, because our people were wearing hard hats, and they were wearing goggles."

Two workers were injured Tuesday in an initial explosion at the plant and were treated and released at WakeMed. WRAL has learned that one lost hearing in his left ear.

After the initial explosion, authorities determined unexploded ordnance had gotten mixed into a batch of scrap metal being processed for recycling. The Army munitions experts decided it was safer to detonate the devices at the plant than to take them elsewhere.

Brown said someone sold a load of scrap metal to the plant last Thursday, and plant workers saw the shells but didn't recognize them as live ammunition. Raleigh Metals Recycling has a policy against accepting ammunition and other hazardous materials, he said.

The person's driver's license number and other information has been turned over to authorities. Raleigh Police Department investigators and agents with the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the case.

An Army source told WRAL that investigators are looking into the possibility that a "scrapper" took the munitions from a military base. Scrappers are people who trespass on bases to salvage material for resale.

State Department of Labor investigators began to interview plant workers Thursday as part of that agency's review of the incident.

Garner Road was expected to reopen between Rush Street and Newcombe Road at about 8 p.m. Thursday. Sughrue said it would be closed off at about 8 a.m. Friday, and drivers were advised to use alternate routes.

The Garner Road YMCA, located across from the plant, also will remain closed, officials said.

The American Red Cross is keeping a shelter at Garner United Methodist Church open for residents, and one person was staying there Thursday morning.