It’s always heartbreaking when a young American in uniform dies in a combat zone. Violent accidental death is always tragic, and almost always preventable. But it’s criminal the way Jimmy Hansen died. The Pentagon issued a terse statement the day after it happened. “Senior Airman James A. Hansen, 25, of Athens, Mich., died Sept. 15 of wounds suffered during a controlled detonation at Joint Base Balad, Iraq,” it said. Controlled detonation is one of those mystifying military terms, like collateral damage, that hides more than it reveals. Uncontrolled detonation is far closer to the mark, according to a just-released probe into what happened.
The chain of errors that killed Jimmy Hansen had many links, and if any one of them hadn’t happened, he’d be alive today. “There were so many things that were done wrong due to being complacent, lack of supervision and poor leadership,” Rich Hansen, Jimmy’s father, recently noted on the Gold Star Dads of America website.
His son, an airfield operator, drummer, runner, one-time Cub Scout and engaged to be married, wanted to watch the base’s six-member explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team in action. It’s designed to boost morale in those year-long tours in desolate deserts and mountains. That day, the team was slated to destroy 35 damaged 120-mm anti-personnel shells. Designed to be fired from M-1 tanks, each round contained hundreds of 10-mm tungsten balls making them basically huge shotgun shells (the balls had been removed from the shells before their scheduled demolition). So, with the permission of his boss, he and 18 other interested military personnel showed up bright and early to watch the team blow stuff up on the 2,500-foot-wide disposal range tucked between the base’s two main runways.
The EOD team spread the 35 shells, each containing 16 pounds of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin, among six different sites up to 180 feet apart. They added up to 38 pounds of C-4 explosive to each pile to ensure the shells’ destruction. Detonating cord ran from each pile back to a concrete shelter where the 25 witnesses readied to watch six big booms.
From the Air Force’s official investigation, here is the litany of errors – what follows are direct quotes — that killed Jimmy Hansen:
— The first two detonations that day [the second of which killed Hansen] were three times the maximum permissible explosive limit on the Joint Base Balad EOD range.
— Per the Explosive Site Plan…the maximum permissible limit is fifty (50) pounds net explosive weight (NEW) per detonation on the JBB EOD range.
— The NEW was estimated to be 178.98 pounds…
— The EOD members and casual observers were approximately 769 feet from the detonations…The type and amount of ordnance detonated on 15 September required all individuals within 2,092 feet from the detonations to have both frontal and overhead protection from the explosions [photographs collected during the probe showed troops exposed to the blasts with neither].
— At one point, the…Commanding Officer and Senior Non-Commissioned Officer noticed some ordnance prepared for demolition was on level ground and asked an EOD member about it. These ordnances were prepared for the first and second detonations. This configuration was noteworthy to the Commanding Officer because he did not remember seeing this type of ordnance before and had not seen ordnance placed on flat terrain during previous demolition operations he attended.
— EOD Disposal Procedures…state that a pit, trench, earth depression, and tamping are normally required when control of fragmentation is a factor.
— The EOD member indicated to the Commanding Officer this configuration was safe by explaining that they had researched the specific ordnance and found that they were composed of “consumable casings” which meant they would “go up with the burst.”
— It was further explained that the ordnance was “directional in nature” and “low” and that the arrangement of the C-4 “would push down and disintegrate” the ordnance “as it pushed them down and out, and that it was standard procedure.”
— [The Air Force manual dealing with EOD] states “Care must be taken to orient munition tail plate sections away from personnel locations or to minimize or eliminate the hazard …prior to detonation.”
— The metal bases of the M1028 cartridges prepared for the first and second detonations were oriented towards the general direction of personnel participating in the operation.
— The EOD members brought the end of [the detonating cords] to an area just under the overhang of the designated safe area in the open space between the concrete wall and the arched shelter. Personnel in this location were in a direct line-of-sight to the demolition set-ups. They were also within the maximum fragmentation range distance and did not have frontal protection against the effects of the explosions.
— While the observers waited in the designated safe area, EOD members asked for volunteers. Six observers, including…the victim, raised their hands and were selected to initiate the detonations.
— The observers were then instructed on how to properly perform the task. After the instruction, the observer volunteers knelt behind the initiation systems…Other observers stood immediately behind them. This configuration of personnel was the pattern used by EOD members in the past when detonating non-robust munitions, such as flares.
— At 0932 hours local time, the EOD team radioed the tower with the 10-minute prior notification for pending detonation. At this time, the senior EOD technician in the flight provided a third and final safety briefing to the observers. The observers listened attentively as he explained that at their present location they were “far enough away” from the detonations and that EOD had never had any problems in the past.
— The senior EOD technician further explained that the observers should be quiet during the detonations, listening for the distinctive sound of fragmentation. He emphasized that if anyone heard those sounds, or the command to “take cover” from any EOD member, they were to immediately take cover and get as low to the ground as possible, similar to procedures taken during enemy indirect fire (mortar) attacks.
— At 0935 hours local time, the EOD team radioed in the 5-minute notification to the Tower. At 0942 hours local time, the EOD team radioed in the 1-minute notification to the Tower. One of the observers was then directed by an EOD member to give the warning that explosive detonation was imminent, yelling “Fire in the hole” three times. Next, EOD Member #3, standing in front of the observers, gave the directive to fire in sequence. He executed this with a “Fire One” command. The first observer initiated his system and detonated the first demolition set-up without incident. Within seconds, EOD Member #3 gave a “Fire Two” command, and the second observer initiated his system and detonated the second demolition set-up.
— A large fragment of a M1028 cartridge base plate struck an active-duty Air Force Senior Airman.
— The trajectory of the shrapnel produced by the detonation caused an impact entrance wound through the victim’s front upper left side of his chest continuing along a path that exited the lower left rear side of his rib cage
— Several individuals then saw the victim fall backwards to the ground and noted the significant shrapnel injury to his chest.
— Several witnesses reported the victim died almost immediately from his wounds.
— All witness testimony confirmed a visible culture of professionalism and safety focus before, during and after the mishap.
So think of this sad tale, and that final official comment, as the Air Force version of an O. Henry story, complete with a surprise ending.
Neither the Air Force investigation, nor the press release detailing its findings, said anything about anyone being held accountable for Hansen’s death. Air Force officials say the probe is the start, not the end, of the process, and action could be taken against those responsible.