Basic bomb-hunting: `First look, then dig'

ON a typical day, the bomb hunters in Belgium send out one or two teams to collect weapons. Today, for instance, a call comes in just after breakfast: A road crew working in the nearby village of Langemark found an artillery shell lodged in the ground under the main street. Could the Army send someone out? Arriving at the scene, the two-man disposal crew clambers into the hole for a closer look.

A rusty stub juts out of the mud at the bottom of the trench - hardly the sinister-looking item you might expect. Still, the team works with care. Many shells made during World War I are capable of carrying either conventional or chemical fillings. This makes it hard to know what you're dealing with.

``First you look, then you dig,'' says Luc Lippinois, the Army officer commanding the operation. In this case, he says, the diameter of the shell and its fuse configuration are tip-offs that it's conventional - an 8-inch artillery shell of British design.

``Not very dangerous,'' says Mr. Lippinois.

After scooping away some of the dirt with the tip of his shovel, he loops a rope around the rump of the bomb. Several firm yanks and the 80-kilogram (176-pound) hulk springs loose, ready to be lifted onto the truck. The shell, caked in mud and rust, is then taken to the base for a thorough cleaning and inspection.

Washing the armaments is essential, since it's often the only way to distinguish chemical from conventional weapons. After they're cleaned, the conventional munitions are packed in crates and destroyed in underground explosions.

Since the 1986 accident, the Belgians have cut handling of old weapons to the bare minimum, and installed a variety of new safety measures. Trucks used to transport the munitions are now fitted with special pallets to hold the shells steady. An automated washing machine arrived in July - replacing the previous practice of cleaning unidentified armaments by hand, using small hammers and wire brushes.

Officials also want to install a machine that hacks open old chemical shells and drains off the toxic materials. ``Once we can separate the toxic contents, the problem becomes less urgent,'' says Col. Cory Deseyn, commander of the bomb-disposal unit.

Meanwhile, local residents seem to take it all in stride. In September, a farmer plowing a field near the village of Warneton scraped across a submerged conventional shell, causing an explosion, but no injuries. The last civilian fatality occurred in 1983; it was also a farmer who had hit a shell with his tractor.

Driving along a winding country road, Capt. Alfons Vander Mast points out a common sight - rusty shells propped in openings at the base of telephone poles. Local farmers, not wanting to go through the trouble of calling out the Army's bomb squad, stuff shells found in their fields in the nearest pole. The shells are collected by bomb-removal crews on their way to other missions.

``People have learned to live with it,'' he says. ``I guess that has to happen after so many years.''

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