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Hong Kong police

Time to take stock of buried war-era bombs

The scale of the problem, size of the construction sector and the risks require greater alertness by more than just those brave munitions disposal officers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 February, 2018, 1:53am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 February, 2018, 1:53am

Dirty, difficult and dangerous is how one police officer involved in disposing of second world war-era bombs unearthed in Hong Kong describes the job.

Two 450kg examples unearthed in recent days in a busy part of Wan Chai during construction of the Sha Tin- Central rail link made clear how true that observation is. A lone specialist and an assistant, their lives at risk in the name of protecting others, were working in a confined space down a muddy hole, the unexploded seven-decade-old device likely unstable and capable of causing devastation for a radius of 2km should something go wrong.

Meet the heroes behind the 50-hour wartime bomb disposal operations in Hong Kong

It is why the people involved in such work are heroes and in the first case, more than 1,000 office workers and residents and in the second, 4,000, were evacuated from the area and roads were closed for between 24 and 26 hours.

Such finds are not unusual, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Bureau being called out dozens of times each year to handle emergencies involving war-era grenades, small arms, live bullets and bombs.

Thousands of tonnes were dropped on Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation from December 1941 to August 1945, first by British forces fighting Japan and then by Americans trying to dislodge the Japanese.

The bombs uncovered in Wan Chai were American; historians believe American aircraft dropped about 4,000 such devices and as many as 30 per cent failed to detonate. They lie buried throughout the city on land and in the sea, being unearthed from time to time by construction workers.

Hong Kong’s buried wartime bombs – how did they get there?

The problem is that no one knows for sure where they are buried and their location is revealed only during dredging, tunnelling, boring and other construction activities. Common sense usually prevails and police are immediately called, although the lack of government guidelines such as the need for risk mitigation on construction sites means that incidents like those of recent days can too easily occur.

Fortunately, our city has avoided the likely catastrophe of a bomb exploding after being struck by digging equipment. The only serious incident was in 1993, when a bomb blew up after being dislodged by a dredger, injuring a crew member.

The expertise and professionalism of the bomb disposal squad has kept us safe. But the older and more unstable the ordnance becomes, the more dangerous the work and greater the threat.

A bomb found just 30 metres from a Queen Mary Hospital residential block in 2015, a 900kg one unearthed near the racecourse in Happy Valley in 2014 and now, those in Wan Chai, highlight just how serious matters could be should luck run out.

The scale of the problem, size of the construction sector and the risks require greater alertness by more than just those brave munitions disposal officers.