On March 23, 2021, a concerned father traveled from Kansas to check on his of his 30-year-old son who lived downtown and whom he had not heard from for quite some time. The father contacted the 018th District and a well-being check of the son was conducted. Police discovered the son was deceased and appeared to have been dead for several weeks.
The original responding police thought the apartment looked suspicious due to the fact that there was extensive homemade laboratory equipment and chemicals strewn about the extremely cluttered apartment.
The CFD Hazardous Materials Unit and the CPD Bomb Squad were contacted and they conducted a secondary inspection of the apartment. What they discovered were numerous burners, cooling tanks, furnaces, vapor meters, and chemicals.
Once it had been determined that the air in the apartment was safe to breathe, the awardees and other members of the Bomb Squad set about to begin a careful probing search of the apartment. Inside one of the refrigerators were several vials, glass beakers, and bottles of unknown chemicals.
Some of these containers were packed in padding. Due to this padding, it was believed that the contents of these vessels were particularly unstable and potentially explosive. Further, recognizing that explosive materials are often kept cold to prevent them from becoming even more volatile, these vials were of great concern to the awardees. They conducted a spectral analysis of these vessels with the CFD and with the assistance of the FBI lab. One of the glass beakers contained Lead Azide. This chemical is highly sensitive and when properly handled or stored is done underwater and in insulated rubber containers. If dropped from a height of 6”, or it is in the presence of static discharge, it will explode. When in its proper state and under laboratory conditions, this substance is typically used for creating detonators.
The Lead Azide found in the apartment was in a highly degraded state, so it was potentially very dangerous.
The FBI Lab advised that this highly explosive and degrade material should only be removed with a robot, and, that particular care had to be taken to not drop or shake it for fear of it immediately exploding. The condition inside the apartment, however, made this option impossible. After exploring all other options, Explosive Technician Steven McNichols suggested that as it was unsafe to remove the materials from the refrigerator with the robot, that a person would have to manipulate the material by hand and load it into the containment vessel to render it safe. He then immediately volunteered to perform this dangerous task himself saying, “It’s my idea, so I should be the one to do it.”
A plan was developed to evacuate portions of the building, and, upon removal of the material, place it in the Bomb Squad Total Containment Vehicle, which is designed to contain explosions safely. Once placed inside the vehicle, the material could be rendered safe by exploding it inside the vehicle at another location.
Due to the structure of the building, this vehicle could not be brought any closer than 150 yards from the apartment, meaning they would have to transport the Lead Azide further by hand. Additionally, the building structure was too thick to allow the remote-controlled robot to be operated outside of sight, exposing the operator to danger from a potential explosion. This increased the inherent danger to both nominees.
A number of dry runs were conducted by Explosive Technicians McNichols and James Wynn. McNichols donned the 100-pound explosive suit and practiced placing an inert object into a basket attached to the ICOR robot. Technician Wynn then would maneuver the robot 150 yards to the Containment Vehicle and place the inert object into the back of this vehicle.
Once the awardees were confident with the dry run results, the plan was implemented. The basket was loaded with ice packs to keep the material cold. As part of the preparations for this plan, explosive charges were rigged inside the Containment Vehicle which would allow the nominees to destroy the Lead Azide remotely.
At the predetermined signal, McNichols carefully removed the material by hand and placed it into the basket. Wynn then remotely controlled the robot to the Containment Vehicle. Time was now a factor as the Lead Azide was no longer in a temperature-controlled environment. Wynn controlled the robot remotely, but line-of-sight because of the concrete structure of the building interrupting the signal. McNichols had to run the distance including several flights of stairs, taking a different route than the robot all while wearing the 100-pound explosive suit. Upon arrival, McNichols had to steady his hands so he could successfully place the Lead Azide in the Containment Vehicle and secure its hatch.
With this dangerous material now safely under control, a convoy took evacuated streets to a safe location where the Lead Azide was destroyed without incident.
For the next several days, the nominees located additional dangerous materials. The IL Emergency Management Agency was notified, and these materials were removed by state authorities. In all, the nominees were involved in this multi-day endeavor that exposed them to materials that, in the conditions in which they were found, were without question hazardous to both life and property.
“These gentlemen discovered and then stepped up to remove highly hazardous and dangerous materials, putting their own lives at risk. It is truly inspiring to see them do the work they did to keep the Citizens of Chicago safe. We are grateful that we can honor them,” said Phil Cline, Executive Director of the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation.