‘You don’t have time to deal with fear’: police veteran Adam Roberts on disarming buried wartime bombs
To dismantle bombs like the two recently discovered in Wan Chai, officers from the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Bureau relied on training, experience and a strong sense of responsibility for public safety
Drenched in mud, eating fried rice from a takeaway box and sitting next to a 27-metre deep hole with a 450kg (1,000lbs) unexploded wartime bomb – that was how Hong Kong bomb disposal expert Adam Roberts spent his birthday on January 27.
Roberts, who turned 48 that day, added that he did get a birthday cake from his police colleagues. But, he added wryly, there was no candle.
Little did he know too that the “unusual birthday” would mark the start of an “extremely unusual week” – four days later on January 31, an equally large device was discovered at the Wan Chai construction site for the Sha Tin-Central subway link, 30 metres away from the first one.
Roberts, a member of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Bureau, was once again summoned to the scene.
Affable and calm, Roberts spoke to members of the city’s media on Monday about how he and his team successfully dismantled both devices, which measured 145cms in length and 45cms in diameter.
The two AN-M65 explosives in Wan Chai were thought to have been dropped by US warplanes in the tail end of the second world war to crush Japanese military facilities along Hong Kong’s coastlines.
Experts said if the devices had gone off, each bomb would send shrapnel flying up to 2km away and give off extreme heat of up to 4,000 degrees Celsius.
Ahead of both operations, police officers closed roads and evacuated about 6,300 people from the surrounding area.
It was not Roberts’ first time disabling such a large device – that was in 2014 when a 450kg bomb was found in Happy Valley.
And he did not wear space suit-like protective gear, like what superstar Andy Lau wore when he played a bomb disposal officer in the Chinese-language action movie Shock Wave.
“A bomb suit would do nothing for a 1,000-pound bomb,” Roberts said on Monday, adding that officers wore their uniforms and helmets “because we were working at a construction site.”
Disposal of the first bomb, which Roberts described as a “huge job”, was an overnight operation lasting for 24 hours. The second effort was dirtier and more dangerous, as the soil around the bomb was soaked with rain.
“When I went down to the hole, it was raining quite heavily at that time. The front end of the bomb was protruding from a sand face. And that was slowly being washed out. So the officers had to take time to shore up the bomb with sand bags … to stop it from rocking,” Roberts recalled.
Chow Shek-kin, a senior bomb disposal officer overseeing the operation, said Roberts had to slowly figure out the structure of the bomb while preventing it from sliding.
“Though the chance for the bomb to go off was rather small … Adam could be killed if such a heavy chunk of metal dropped on him out of the blue,” Chow said.
To that, Roberts, a British national who was trained in bomb disposal techniques in Hong Kong, said: “You don’t have time to deal with fear.
“If you let fear take over, you cannot discharge your responsibility...for a job of this size, it’s the sense of responsibility. You are responsible for the lives of your fellow officers, property in the local area, and the public. And that’s the overriding sensation.”
Based on their training and experience, the team decided to dismantle the bomb by first cutting three holes in the casing with hydraulic pressure and steel grits. Their next step was then to remove the explosives and burn it using a special igniter.
However, as soon as the casing was cut open, fuel started to leak and the entire casing was covered in TNT.
“It was leaking out constantly,” Roberts remembered. Both fuses also exploded during the process of burning the explosives, although most of the fuel had been removed by then.
“You would have seen Andy Lau deal with it in five minutes in a movie; the reality is it takes a bit longer than that,” Roberts joked, though he said he had not fully recovered from an ordeal he would never forget.
But fatigue was not on his mind during the disposal operations.
“I had so much to think about. I hadn’t got time to think about being tired. As soon as the job was finished, then I felt extremely mentally and physically exhausted,” Roberts said, “You basically just put your head down and that’s it.”
To commemorate the successful disposal of the Happy Valley bomb, Roberts got a “lucky T-shirt” made – the short-sleeved black T-shirt said “Keep Calm I Am A Hong Kong Bomb Disposal Officer”.
But it was just for laughs, he said.
“We don’t rely on luck. We rely on training and experience, and our fellow officers … You can’t just say we are the best in that. You have to prove it every time. We have to get it right 100 per cent every time.”
Chow on Monday said the police would arrange a second training session for some 80 staff of MTR Corporation, the subway operator, on what to do if site workers discovered more bombs.
“Compared to the first session we delivered more than two years ago, the coming one will talk more about large bombs,” Chow said.
Hong Kong MTR didn’t use metal detectors before subway digging works, despite knowing area was once a war zone
“The larger the bombs, the deeper they went when they were dropped. So as the construction goes deeper into the ground, workers will be more likely to discover the large bombs,” he explained.
Chow said the Bureau, which had only 11 full-time disposal officers and assistants, did not have enough manpower or professional machines to inspect the whole construction site for MTR but meetings with the corporation would be held to discuss procedures to handle bombs discovered in future.
“It’s for MTR to decide whether an inspection is needed and it has to hire a professional company to carry it out,” Chow said.
A spokesman of MTR confirmed to the Post that officials from EOD would hold a training workshop for the management and workers on the construction site within two weeks.
“We have hired a company to conduct inspection on the site before each construction task since the first bomb was discovered [on January 27]. They will continue their work as long as it is needed,” the spokesman said, without providing further information.