What Is This?
It's also something else.
It's a bomb. And it can be brought on a commercial airline undetected.
Here at Best Life we were developing a story on how our airports post-9/11 are not much safer than before. Ripe with whistle-blowers and what not it was damn interesting...and damn scary. Searching the text for visual directions, one of the most intriguing parts was about a collection of common elements that one could easily get through security and assemble into a bomb on a commercial airliner. Much more interesting than the obligatory spooky picture of the whistle-blower in an airport, right? So we called Dan Winters.
I recently had a chance to catch Dan on the phone to talk about the project of assembling a bomb: fascintating, funny.....and terrifying.
BRANDON KAVULLA: I remember we initially had our creative meeting about the article and it came up in the copy that there were all these items you could easily purchase at a hardware store or drug store that you could get through airport security and assemble as a bomb on a plane. Then it came up, "Well damn, let's see if Dan could actually build us a bomb if and actually put the thing together and shoot it."
You were dealing with our Photo Editor Jeanne Graves on this, so what was your reaction when she brought this to you? I know you've built lots of stuff for us and other magazines but had you ever built something this dangerous?
DAN WINTERS: Well, I've actually done a lot explosive stuff. I had a whole period of my life where I was studying pyrotechnics. I used to be a model builder for movies in the early 80's. I worked on Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rodgers building models, miniatures...BK: (laughing) Ok, now it's all making sense.
DW: There you go!BK: So this was not the first explosive you've built.
DW: No, not at all. In fact 3 Christmases ago my son drew this picture of a fire cracker on a piece of 8.5 x 11 piece of paper and it consumed the whole page. He said that's what he wanted for Christmas and wrote under it "actual size". So I made him ten of them. I made him a crate they went in and I made my own danger labels and each had a pound of black powder in them.BK: (laughing) Where are these things?
DW: Well, we only have 2 left so we've already set off 8 of the ten.BK: (laughing) Now I love this even more--that you have built explosives before, I had no idea.
You would not believe. The explosion is insane, you have to cover your ears.
DW: Oh, yeah, I'm way into explosives.BK: So there would be a team of three people and each person would be carrying a different element of the bomb through security.
The thing about the Best Life bomb, I have to be honest with you: I built a fully operational bomb but I didn't mix the explosive component because it is very unstable. So the bomb I made for the issue wouldn't actually explode. I would have had to mix the precipitate, which is hydrogen peroxide, sulfuric acid and acetone mixed together. There is a distilling process and a heating process and then what ultimately forms out of it is a crystal precipitate and that's the explosive element. It's pretty unstable, but really easy to put together.
The tricky part is handling it.
What I did when I got the assignment is I talked to the writer and I talked to the person he was using as his source who was an ex-navy SEAL. Neither one of those guys had a whole lot of explosive knowledge so I was back to square one and had to figure it out for myself. I talked to the guy who was the source of inside information and had an operation with the FAA where they were sneaking stuff onboard air crafts to test different security areas.
I talked to him about his experience with things, but not as an explosive background and then sat down online for a 4.5 hour session of researching "If I was going to take down an airliner, how would I go about it?" Now this is all with the thought that I am going to kill myself in the process of taking the plane down.
The way we have things structured in airlines, if the passenger is not on the plane, then the bag doesn't go on the plane. I suppose the one other thing you could do is put the bag in the overhead and then drink something that would make you violently ill and they would take you off the plane and leave your bag there. However, placement of the device would be key to bring the plane down so you would really have to be on there. So it's really a suicide mission to bring the plane down.
This is an explosive that's easy to make, it has about 80-85% of the explosive portion of TNT. I think the editor really wanted to hear that this would be something you could completely create at the airport and sneak it on. But it's a bit more difficult to create the substance than just create it in the bathroom. There's heating and cooling required and some specific parameters under which that needs to take place. However, the substance is not detectable by any of the explosive sensing devices they use; like, the swab wouldn't detect it. It doesn't have the carbon elements that most explosives have.
So my ideal scenario if I was going to take down a plane would be this: I would work with three or four people, one of which would ultimately get on the plane with the bomb.
DW: Correct. So two of the guys would be carrying one small satchel each of the explosive element, in bags that were in their groin--wearing loose pants, and they would get through the metal detectors with no problem.BK: Man...very wild.
They would bring the actual crystalline in. Then other people would bring in 16 gauge wire, a couple of flashlight light bulbs, a nine volt battery, a timer off of a dog feeder, 2 coke bottles and some chewing gum all of which could get through easily or be purchased after we're through security. Nine volt batteries get stopped sometimes but they would be very easy to get in inside the film magazine of a 35mm camera and it would just look like electronics within the camera.
DW: Yeah, you can get that stuff on there. So all those materials are brought in including the explosive element.BK: This is AFTER getting through security?
Someone stops at the magazine stand, buys a couple bottles of coke, everybody meets in the men's room, and the individual that is going to assemble the bomb...
DW: Yep, this after everyone's through...which would be a breeze. The individual that is assembling the bomb would set up shop in the handicap stall and the other individuals bring their items and hand them off to him and he can put it together in about 10 minutes, pretty easily. Get it ready to go, start the timer and get it on the plane.BK: So you didn't really research this project heavily at all.
So I built the bomb with the exception of the explosive element. I set the timer and I let it go and the igniters went off exactly when I set the timer for, so it worked flawlessly. If I had put black powder into it, it would've detonated. Now black powder would be easy to get through and there's a couple ways you could do it. Once again, non-detectable by any of the metal detectors, easily carried on. I was thinking guys that would wear chefs pants or bodybuilder pants and they can hide it in their groin area. There's pretty much no way they would get searched for it. Once again, this involves a guy going down with the plane.
Now there is this whole urban myth that a hole in an aircraft at 30,000 feet sucking people out of it, which is bullshit. It would depressurize the cabin, etc. but that's it.
So you'd have to strategically place the bomb to bring the plane down.
My idea was that the pilot's cabin doors have all been retro-fitted with kevlar ballistic nylon. However, the walls on either side are not, just the door is. The lavatory in first class is against the pilot's bulkhead and shares a wall with the cockpit. Now again you'd have to pick the right kind of plane: a 757 or a 737 .
You would book a first class seat, take it into that lavatory and detonate the device in there and it would blow right through that wall, kill the pilot and copilot and the plane would go down.
DW: (laughing) No, not at all. This kind of thing comes around and it's totally intriguing to me, trying to work this stuff out. I really enjoy working on stuff like this. You learn so much.BK: Let me ask you one other question, could this thing have been assembled on the plane that's in the air? Say if all 3 guys were crazy and they all agreed to go down with the plane.
DW: It could be assembled on a plane in the air. My thoughts are that it would be unlikely you could pull off being in the men's room for that long. Because there are people that are monitoring that on the plane. Whereas at the airport no one is going to pay attention at all.BK: But it's basically a 15 minute assembly though.
DW: Yep.BK: Now someone else here told me something I wanted to ask you about. Do you have a relative or something that's a firefighter?
DW: Yeah my brother.BK: And I heard you had wanted to detonate this thing for real after the shoot and he had talked you out of it? (laughing)
DW: Yeah, he's actually a hazmat (hazardous material) and explosive certified L.A. County firefighter. I called him right after I researched this and asked him what would be the most reasonable way to do it. He told me I was on the right track, TATP would be the best thing for it because it's non-detectable and anyone can put it together. But he said it's unstable and basically told me don't fuck around with it. So I said, Ok I won't do it. And he told me exactly what it looks like and you can google it, it's just like a white crystalline. And so I just used sea salt in the bomb. He signed off on the bomb too, I went over the whole thing with him.BK: (laughing)
I really would've liked to have detonated it after the shoot and videotaped my bomb exploding but right now it's just sitting on top of my refrigerator at my studio.
DW: So every time someone comes to my studio they're like "Whoah, what the hell's that?" (laughing)BK: (laughing) Oh that's just my bomb I built.
DW: Yeah, that's my bomb!BK: Waiting for you..."Dan, detonate me!"