INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Eleven feet underwater, Navy diver Lt. Matt Grove was belly to bomb, slowly excavating two World War II-era aerial bombs mired in sand on the ocean floor.
At the time, it wasn’t known if the two bombs — the largest of which was a potential city-block-leveling 1,000-pound munition — were live, or dud practice bombs.
“We couldn’t use mechanical tools” because of the inherit danger, Grove said, after the bombs were safely disposed of Tuesday 1 mile offshore.
The largest bomb, 6 feet long, turned out to be a sand-filled dud.
The second, smaller bomb, initially thought to have been a 500-pound dud, appears to have been live, detonated by the explosives Grove attached to it, he said.
SURVEYING THE SITUATION
Grove and his five fellow divers were at risk of being caught in an explosion had a live bomb gone off unexpectedly.
So, too, were residents of beachfront homes overlooking where the divers worked before Tuesday, 300 feet offshore of The Moorings subdivision in southern Indian River County.
Divers used compressed air to delicately blow away the compacted sands enveloping the two bombs sitting near each other on the ocean bottom.
“It was a tedious three or four days” of excavation that started Jan. 24, said Grove, the leader of the elite Navy Explosives Ordnance Disposal Unit. It’s the only one in all branches of the military. Its six members, while active Navy, volunteer for this team.
Grove, who’s based at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, works in a region including the northern Caribbean and southeastern United States. Normally, the team is dispatched 100 times a year to such things as military flares on beaches or to homes where sheriff’s office officials say someone may be harboring a grenade, he said.
This time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called them in after an aerial survey showed some potentially harmful materials on the ocean bottom south of Vero Beach.
The Corps was checking because during World War II the then uninhabited beaches of southern Indian River and St. Lucie counties were a widespread training ground for amphibious landings and counter defenses, including aerial bombing.
An estimated 40,000 soldiers passed through the area on their way to Normandy or to dislodging Japanese forces entrenched on islands in the Pacific Ocean.
In southern Indian River County, military aircraft practiced bombing beach landing obstructions such as blocks of concrete and steel. Through the years, left-behind bombs and mines have been unearthed by construction and erosion — including the two removed last week from the ocean bottom.
For the Indian River County job, Grove brought in team members from military installations in Jacksonville, Pensacola and from Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in southeast Georgia.
The Explosives Ordnance Disposal Unit “is not a large community,” he said. “It is challenging to find people capable of doing it and who are willing.”
All are ages 28 to 36 years old.
Grove, a married father, knows the risks.
“My family is very understanding,” he said. “Hugs aren’t just for goodbyes. They are part of daily life.”
So far, none of his team have been harmed in disposal operations in the United States, he said.
“We trust in ourself and our team. There is a lot of stress,” that is subdued by the team using a methodical approach to what they do, and training, he said.
JUST ANOTHER DAY AT WORK
Grove’s team began investigating the Corps’ sighting two weeks ago, diving down to see what they were up against.
Because of the amount of sand and material encasing the metal objects, “There was no way to positively identify them. We took measurements and compared them to historical documents,” he said.
By Monday, the devices were freed and readied for lifting.
As a precaution, Indian River County sheriff’s deputies went door to door asking residents of seven nearby beachfront houses to evacuate for most of the afternoon.
Inflatable air bags lifted the bombs to the surface, one at a time.
Then, a boat towed them a mile out, with a 1,000-foot-long rope separating the boat and rafts.
On Tuesday, the bombs were submerged again, ending up on an expanse of sandy ocean bottom.
The divers attached to each bomb 20 pounds of C-4 explosive, equivalent to 25 sticks of dynamite, Grove said. A state wildlife official flew overhead, checking for whales and other marine life.
Then the team pushed a remote detonator linked to the first bomb. The explosion released the dud munition.
Then came the second, which was believed to be a 500-pound bomb. The detonation sent up a slightly larger blast of water on the surface. That, coupled with a later blast hole on the bottom, led Grove to believe that the device did blow up, and it was a smaller 250-pound bomb, he said.
“We just try to execute the plan” the team uses in handling explosive materials. “We methodically go through the process.
“The reality is that every day could be your last,” but that could happen more often on highways in accidents and in other aspects of life.