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Members of NH's first bomb squad offer perspective

New Hampshire Sunday News

April 21. 2013 1:00AM
From left are Sgt. John McMaster, Peter Merkes, Leo Jellison, Andrew Parsons, and Cpl. Jack Meaney, all former NH State Police bomb squad members. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

Some things haven't changed much since John McMaster helped start the first bomb squad in New Hampshire in 1972 while serving with state police.

"Container bombs of old are like container bombs today," said McMaster, who was admired over the years as a sort of MacGyver, if not downright magician, of bomb disposal in the dangerous days before bomb suits and robots and enormous bomb container vessels.

One difference now is that container bombs similar to the ones used in the Boston Marathon bombings can be detonated by cellphone, McMaster said.

Building them, though, is still very similar whether the bombers got directions years ago from a copy of the book "Anarchist Cookbook" or today off the Internet.

"They are easily made. The equipment is very easy to get and the instructions have been the same for 40 years," said McMaster, who retired from state police 15 years ago after 29 years of service.

The reasons people build and set them off haven't changed all that much, either, he said.

"Somebody had a grudge against someone," McMaster said. Or politics, he added.

Voices of experience

The Boston bombing tragedy that unfolded last week with intense media coverage prompted calls back and forth among retired bomb squad members, even more so than usual for men who forged lifelong friendships on the job.

After one television journalist reported on air that the Boston devices were very sophisticated, McMaster and retired bomb squad member Jack Meaney agreed: "No, they're not," without even trying to contain their disdain.

McMaster scoffed at the idea that the alleged bombers were reportedly smart young men.

"They may have had high intelligence, but they didn't have a clue to the fact there were going to be hundreds of people photographing them," McMaster said. "It looked like they intended to go home and watch the 6 o'clock news and have a beer."

Anybody in their right mind today should know there is too much media at such an event and too many security cameras to get away with it, he said.

"They didn't even bother to disguise themselves - a baseball cap and sun glasses," McMaster said.

The suspects were lucky the bombs didn't go off while they were carrying them, he said.

"With a remote control system, they could be set off by a police radio, news radio or cellphone if it hit the right frequency," McMaster said.

He suspected black powder or similar product right away when he saw the white smoke after the bombings and thought there must have been at least two people involved if there were two bombs.

McMaster didn't want to second-guess the experts on the scene.

"I'm not speculating," McMaster said, adding, "It's difficult not to."

When anti-Vietnam war politics was involved in New Hampshire bombings years ago, there would usually be a warning call ahead of time to make sure no one was injured.

"That would have been bad publicity for their cause if anyone was hurt," McMaster said.

The Boston bombers definitely wanted to hurt people, he said.

As McMaster watched on television Friday, he spoke with pride when he spotted the rear of a New Hampshire State Police cruiser on the screen, knowing troopers and the bomb squad of today were helping out.

"The guys that are working nowadays are right on the ball," McMaster said. "They are better trained and have more opportunities to go to school and are better equipped."

Early days

It wasn't like that when he started out. The bomb suit in the early years was a standard issue state trooper uniform.

In 1972, student activists set off bombs at the Manchester police and fire stations after an anti-war rally. McMaster and William Barrett, who had some ordnance experience in the military, were the troopers on duty in the area. One bomb in a paper bag hadn't exploded.

"I held it while Barrett dismantled it," McMaster said. The bomb squad was born.

There was no money for equipment. He remembered scrounging $20 from Col. Paul O'Leary, now retired, to buy wire cutters, a screw driver and some small tools.

"I had no equipment," he said.

McMaster got an X-ray unit from Civil Defense and rebuilt it to run off a generator. Seabrook nuclear power plant built a bomb containment unit and sold it to him for $1.

He got a surplus trailer to haul it around from another department.

"I brought it to my house in Barrington and welded it myself," McMaster said.

It was that ingenuity that Col. O'Leary loved about McMaster.

"Most of the equipment came as a result of his own ability and creativity," O'Leary said.

That was before 9/11 and fighting terrorism became a priority, which made funds available for state-of-the-art equipment.

Jack Meaney, who owns Ibby Co. Drilling and Blasting in Henniker, said he always felt safer on the bomb squad than making a traffic stop.

"We always treated every call like it was the real thing. We were prepared for that," Meaney said. "We never lost anybody."

Drega case

The closest he remembered coming to a bomber who wanted to tangle with police was Carl Drega.

Drega, of Columbia, killed a district court judge, two state troopers, and a newspaper editor in Colebrook on Aug. 19, 1997. While he was fleeing to Vermont, Drega shot and wounded a Fish and Game officer who tried to stop him, then ambushed 20 pursuing officers. Drega shot another New Hampshire state trooper and a U.S. Border Patrol agent before he was fatally shot by police, the Sunday News reported.

Drega's three-story barn was filled with explosives, and he and Meaney were sent to inspect the area, McMaster said.

"I started going up the stairs, and Meaney's reading Drega's manual. He's yelling, 'Don't go up the stairs.' The instruction book had an index card on the section on how to booby trap stairs," McMaster said.

Known for his dry sense of humor, McMaster remembered driving three cases of old dynamite to a town dump to explode.

On that particular trip, he took a park ranger along, who may have been a little concerned about the potential danger.

"I told him if anything happened, the newspaper headline on Page 1 would be: 'State Trooper blows himself up.' The other small notice on Page 3 would say: 'Park ranger missing.'"?

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