Risky business

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 January, 2007, 12:00am

'He didn't make a professional error, he just ran out of luck,' said the Hong Kong bomb squad's chief, Dominic Brittain, of former stalwart Norman 'Bomber' Hill.

Mr Brittain's comments came as he reflected on the night in 1971 that Hill - arguably the squad's most famous member - had his right hand blown off.

Hill was given the nickname after he and his partner, also from the Ballistics Office - as it was then known - defused more than 8,000 bombs in six months during the 1967 riots. The ill-fated 1971 incident took place when Hill was called out one night to inspect two suspicious packages left outside the Central Government Offices.

After cheating death on that and numerous other occasions during his career, it was to be something far more mundane - a lung infection - that finally carried him away in December last year. He was 84.

Hill stands as a giant in the history of bomb disposal in Hong Kong. He helped develop the body armour modern disposal technicians wear and continued to advise squad members even after that bomb blew his hand off. And the city's elite team of 41 bomb disposal officers are part of the legacy of professionalism left behind by Hill.

Bomb disposal officers have better suits now, which offer protection for the limbs and head. In the old days, experts such as Hill had only a steel bulletproof vest for protection, and, on the night he lost his hand, he had not bothered to 'suit-up'.

Thanks to the development of technology and improved skills, the accident was the last that resulted in serious injuries to a bomb disposal officer in Hong Kong. While the job is theoretically safer nowadays Mr Brittain said 'the danger has never changed'.

'This is one of the lessons Norman taught us, and now we always treat all bombs as real bombs.'

Mr Brittain said his officers had to get it right every time because each decision they made was one between life and death.

Better protection and more sophisticated training are now given to the city's bomb disposal squad. The bureau's workload averages about 150 jobs every year, and every time the operators are aware that a single mistake could cost their lives.

Mr Brittain said dealing with any explosive object required an extremely high standard of professionalism. Enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for professional errors was one of the major objectives of training: every operator had to aim to reduce risk as far as possible because it could never be removed.

'About 3 per cent of EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] operators are killed as a result of bad luck, while 97 per cent are killed as a result of professional error,' he said.

Mr Brittain said maintaining professional standards was one of the most effective safety measures in terms of managing risk.

Dirty. Difficult. Dangerous. That's how the work in EOD is often described, but Mr Brittain said bomb disposal was the best job in the world. 'They all say that we look like movie stars,' joked Mr Brittain, who has been a bomb disposal specialist for the Hong Kong Police Force for more than 20 years, and has dealt with more than 600 bomb threats.

'Bomb disposal is a thinking game. If you get the thinking right, you play a safe game.' The 46-year-old said the job was tough, but rewarding.

'Once I was wearing my bomb suit as I was walking down Nathan Road. The whole area was deserted. No cars, no traffic, no people, no nothing. No voices, and all I can hear is my own breathing. I know I am dealing with a bomb and I know I can do it. I know I can make the public safer.'

Mr Brittain said he knew he was doing the best thing in the world every time he was called upon to defuse a bomb. 'You won't get extra money for the work in EOD, but you get satisfaction,' he said. 'All you need is the sense that you want to do it - to make it a better place, and to make the public safe.'

Hong Kong was considered a medium-risk target for terrorism, Mr Brittain said. 'We are always prepared for it'. Refusing to reveal more details, he merely observed the EOD has an international reputation for its professionalism and advanced technology, which includes two robot team members - Wheelbarrow and Cyclops.

The two robots are good colleagues to the bomb operators, according to Mr Brittain. However, that doesn't mean the manual part of the job has been totally done away with. The robots are only a 'risk reduction measure'.

'Some bombs can be dealt with by a robot, some can't,' he said, refusing to say more than that for security reasons.

But before the robots joined the force in 1975, all bombs had to be defused by hand.

During the 1966-67 period, when Hill was working as a ballistics officer, riots, protests and bombings were an everyday occurrence in the city. The attacks started in May 1967 when workers at a plastic flower factory were involved in a labour dispute with their employers. When negotiations broke down, workers spilled into the streets throwing acid and stones at police.

Thousands of homemade bombs were placed on the street. A strong anti-colonial warning - 'Comrades! Don't get near!' - was seen written on the packages.

Hill, with his fellow officers, was called out to dispose of all sorts of explosive devices during that time. His outstanding contribution to public safety was recognised by the city's colonial masters and he was awarded the MBE in 1968.

Having come to Hong Kong from Britain and joined the police force as a sub-inspector in 1954, he regarded the city as his home. Even after the 1971 injury, he was not disheartened.

The way in which Hill's accident occurred effectively conveyed one of the home truths about working with bombs: luck always plays a role.

'For technical reasons, he probably thought they were hoax bombs,' said Mr Brittain, sitting in the Mount Butler offices of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Bureau. With its own practice range, the bureau occupies the most expansive of all police facilities in Hong Kong.

Mr Brittain, whose rank is senior bomb disposal officer, said he would have agreed with the decisions Hill made that fateful night.

'Bomb disposal work is always tricky,' he said, adding that he had discussed the accident with Hill and thought there were plenty of clues to suggest it was not a genuine bomb. 'He was not wearing his protective suit, but it wouldn't have made any difference if he did.'

Following medical treatment and the fitting of a prosthesis, Hill resumed his duties as senior ballistics officer until April 1975 when he retired on medical grounds. He then established his own business as a consultant for an airport security company.

'He was very passionate about his job, he never wanted to stop if he had a choice. He loved things like machines, guns, and bombs so he insisted on doing his job even after he lost his arm,' said Pauline Chung, Hill's life companion for his last 30 years. She said Hill swam everyday at the Tsim Sha Tsui Marina Club to maintain his physical strength after he recovered from the injury.

'He always kept his promise. Each time he went out for work, he would tell me not to worry and say he would come back. But this time, he did not keep his promise,' she said, describing Hill as caring and responsible.

According to Mr Brittain, Hill was a man possessed of good humour, courage and steadfastness - although some people called him stubborn.

Hill had set a good example to his fellow EOD operators because he had in life demonstrated the very central belief of the unit: 'It's about service'.