Fire in the Hole!
SGT. 1ST CLASS MARK DAVIS
Joint Force Headquarters – Detachment
Camp Robinson, Little Rock, Arkansas
Author’s note: The names of those involved in this incident have been changed to protect their privacy.
It was a breezy spring morning on a demolition range in California. I clearly recall our newly assigned platoon leader telling us to make sure we expended all explosives because the boss said to not turn in anything. We were issued a ridiculous amount of explosives ranging from anti-tank mines, satchel charges, Bangalore torpedoes, claymore mines, and enough detonation cord to run from New York to Los Angeles. I was a safety officer on a demolition range many times before in my young career as a combat engineer, but I’d never been issued this much explosives. The kicker was we could only expend 50 pounds at one time.
Some strategic planning was going to be necessary considering our time constraints versus the amount of explosives we had to expend. This was the new platoon leader’s first time on a demolition range of this capacity. He was depending on us to make him look good for the commander. As we watched him walk around and display an eagerness for us to get the range operations underway, I could sense a level of urgency that really wasn’t necessary. My sergeant barked orders loudly. “Get everything out of the crates and separated,” he said. Once we laid everything out, we started our blast plan. After detonating a few field expedient charges, we could see that the 50-pound limit was not even putting a dent in our mountain of explosive inventory.
Following an extremely short chow break, I overheard Cpl. Smith speaking with the range safety officer (RSO). “What about that old tank hull on the east end of the range? We could really pack a load in that thing,” Smith said. A tingling sensation immediately ran up and down my spine when I saw the RSO chuckle in agreement. A few more moments passed and I received the order to go with Smith to look over the tank hull.
We took a few measurements and agreed we could probably expend at least half of the inventory inside the turret of the old tank. When we returned with the news, we saw the platoon leader walking away swiftly from the RSO. “I don’t care how you do it, just get rid of it and make sure we have plenty of standoff,” the RSO said. This wasn’t a direct order, but we had just gained permission to bypass the 50-pound rule that was a part of the range safety brief.
After what seemed like several hours, I tried to climb my way through all of the detonation cord that was tying together several hundred pounds of explosives. I felt like a child trying to navigate my way across the igloo-shaped jungle gym frame on my grade-school playground. I emerged from the tank’s turret and said, “Everything is dual primed and ready to go. I put a 10-minute delay on the time fuse because we are going to need a huge standoff.”
There was no bunker on this demolition range, so we agreed that a 500-yard standoff would be sufficient. Once the platoon staged themselves at the standoff location, I ignited the time fuse and began my 500-yard walk to join them. The tank looked very small from the standoff distance as we all stood and waited for the large amount of explosives to detonate. Thinking of the shock wave alone was exciting. We also had new members in the platoon, to include the platoon leader. This was an exciting time for them as well.
The countdown began once we reached the 1-minute mark. I called, “Fire in the hole!” and, right on time, the tank went up in magnificent fashion. There were large and small pieces of the tank blown hundreds of feet into the air in all directions. After a few seconds, we all heard a disturbing sound rapidly approaching our position. Within a millisecond of hearing the sound, it registered in my mind that I had closed the turret hatch after I exited the tank.
We never saw the debris, only heard it traveling in our direction, until the hatch impacted about 20 yards behind our standoff position. We all stood and looked at each other, knowing that any one of us could have easily just had our head taken off with that huge chunk of metal. There was nothing but somber looks on everyone’s faces and a little bit of nervous laughter from some of the lower-ranking individuals that really didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation.
On a good note, there wasn’t much inventory left after that huge shot. We had plenty of time left to let some of the new people get some good training time, and the new platoon leader learned a valuable lesson early in his career. Rushing things and trying to expend all demolitions in an unsafe manner can present a hazardous situation. We finished the range on time and with no injuries, but we all knew we were lucky. From that point forward, safety was placed first in all of our range operations.