VRHabilis in the News

VRHabilis called to identify rusted cannon shell

From the Martha’s Vineyard Times:

Alec Gale dredged up more than mollusks off Lobsterville Beach in the Martha’s Vineyard town of Aquinnah Wednesday. The fisherman found a rusted 40-millimeter cannon shell of the type used by World War II era aircraft.

Mr. Gale brought the shell to the dock in Menemsha Harbor, left it on a shed near the Texaco gas station and called police with news of his catch. Chilmark Police Sergeant Jonathan Klaren called Tom Rancich of West Tisbury.

Mr. Rancich is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, who spent part of his career as a Navy SEAL dealing with disposal of unexploded bombs. Mr. Rancich’s company, VRHabilis, is currently under contract to help the US Army Corps of Engineers in its survey and cleanup of World War II era munitions from former practice sites along the Island’s south shore.

When someone finds a bomb, authorities here notify Mr. Rancich, who determines whether the object is safe to move and store, or whether it is a live bomb that requires a controlled detonation.

After receiving a photo from Officer Klaren, Mr. Rancich advised him not to move the shell, which he later identified.

“The cartridge was sealed and intact, although the nose cone was seriously deteriorated,” Mr. Rancich wrote in a report to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Mr. Rancich moved the cannon shell to a fenced-off location on the beach. That evening, the State Police bomb squad arrived and destroyed it in a controlled explosion.

Mr. Rancich said that although the area off Lobsterville was not used for training purposes, anecdotal reports from local fishermen are that there has been WWII airplane wreckage discovered in that area.

Read the full article.

VRHabilis in the News

VRHabilis’ Navy veterans working on Martha’s Vineyard

Nelson Sigelman of the Martha’s Vineyard Times published a story on July 2, Navy vets put war-making training to peaceful use, which features some of the US Navy veterans of VRHabilis. Here are some excerpts:

The popular stretch of sand and surf that fronts on the Atlantic Ocean is far removed from the world’s conflicts that shaped much of his training, but for Eliott Adler, co-owner of VRHabilis, the cleanup is an opportunity for veterans, some of whom are disabled, to do meaningful work.

This spring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hired EOD Technologies (EODT), a Tennessee based company that specializes in munitions cleanups, to find and remove practice munitions in Katama and Cape Poge on Chappaquiddick…. While the Cape Poge cleanup was primarily land based, the South Beach cleanup contract … called for a search and cleanup 110 feet out from the shoreline.

EODT subcontracted the South Beach dive work to VRHabilis, a company with a strong local connection. West Tisbury resident Tom Rancich, a former Navy SEAL, is a partner in the company and once commanded a specialized unit that included Mr. Adler.

Since April the men and their four employees have worked out of a small trailer parked on the beach. They have methodically moved along the shore searching the underwater terrain for any lost munitions.

Safety, for the public and the crew, has been a primary concern. While one diver is in the water another is suited up and ready to assist at all times. Signs warn the public that they are not allowed within a set exclusion zone.

The search technique relies on a diver who searches a specific grid with a magnetometer, an instrument that detects metal objects buried in the sand. When a signal is heard the diver uses an air vacuum to remove sand around the object.

If the object turns out to be old munitions it is not moved until at least two of the on-site ordinance experts agree that it appears to be inert. “The more eyes that you can put on it the better and when everybody has a consensus that it is acceptable to move that is when we make the decision to bring it up,” said Mr. Adler.

The use of video technology to involve other experts is one of the techniques that VRHabilis pioneered.

During a recent demonstration visit to the work site arranged by the Army Corps of Engineers, diver Erik Toews entered the rolling surf tethered to the shore by a rope, air hose, and communication cable. While in the water he communicated with Kim Heckhausen of Taunton, a retired Navy deep-sea diver who now works as a commercial diver in Boston. Mr. Heckhausen monitored the diver’s progress from within the trailer by means of a video camera mounted on Mr. Toews’s hardhat.

Standby diver Robert Rozzi of Hull, who served in the same Navy unit as Mr. Adler and Mr. Rancich but on another team, remained suited up and ready to assist. When it came time to leave the water diver Larry Weinmann, of Vero Beach Florida, assisted Mr. Towes with the heavy cables.

As of June 12 the team had found a total of 103 ordinance items, including old warheads and rocket motors, none of which contained high explosives according to the Army Corp of Engineers. The South Beach cleanup was scheduled to conclude today, but extended to July 7 and may be extended beyond that date.

In a telephone interview Monday Mr. Adler, who calls Knoxville Tennessee home, said that after he retired from the military in 1996 he went to work for companies in the environmental and unexploded ordnance fields.

When he saw a niche that called for a combination of diving and ordinance expertise, he contacted Mr. Rancich and together they started VRHabilis. “Tom and I have been friends for about 20 years,” Mr. Adler said.

They met while classmates at Navy explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) school. Later, Mr. Rancich was the officer in charge and Mr. Adler was the senior enlisted man in the same explosive ordnance disposal mobile unit.

Mr. Adler said the Navy created their team for a specific mission in the first Gulf war after it was learned that the beaches of Kuwait were heavily mined. Their job was to work with special operations units.

“One of the alternate battle plans called for landing personnel on the beaches of Kuwait,” Mr. Adler said, “so they needed our unique skill set to be able to go in and defuse the mines and remove booby traps and things like that, so that other personnel could get in safely.”

Today Mr. Adler and Mr. Rancich use their skills to clean up former military ranges. Their business strategy includes selling the recovered metal as scrap, a process that helps defray costs and utilizing readily available remote control devices where possible.

“One of the things that we are particularly proud of is that we offer employment opportunities for guys that have become disabled during the course of their military service,” Mr. Adler said. He said the company uses adaptive technology so that disabled veterans can work in their chosen field. For example, a bulldozer can be fitted out so that someone who cannot walk can operate the machine, or operate a remote control device.

Mr. Adler said the veterans he has worked with represent a significant investment by the military in training, have a tremendous amount of experience and bring a good work ethic and extensive leadership skills. Mr. Adler said, “So you are able to get a top flight, A-1 individual who has had success in the same career field and we are able to utilize those talents.”

For more information, including additional photographs, a video clip, and links to PDF maps, read the entire article: Navy vets put warmaking training to peaceful use on the Martha’s Vineyard Times website.

VRHabilis in the News

Recovering WWII munitions at Martha’s Vineyard

David Abel of The Boston Globe reports that storm-wrought changes in the currents at Martha’s Vineyard have exposed remnants of a bombing range the Navy operated there during World War II. Over the past year, dozens of rockets and larger munitions have washed ashore, including three live 100-pound bombs.

In April, the Corps of Engineers hired VRHabilis to find and safely dispose of these warheads. Their expertise in Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) makes VRHabilis especially qualified for this job.

According to the Globe:

Over the past few months … [VRHabilis divers] have found 124 MK-23 bombs, five MK-5 bombs, and nearly 2,000 pounds of other bomb parts off Cape Poge. Along South Beach, where the work continues, they have found about 115 similar bombs, many of them designed to destroy submarines. None of those weapons, nearly all covered in rust and barnacles, contained explosives or rocket propellant or posed any danger, aside from cuts to unsuspecting swimmers.

But the threat of an explosion is always there, making the work painstaking and tedious. The divers use waterproof magnetometers to detect metal buried in the ocean floor, and when they find it, they use a special pump to remove the surrounding sand.

Before they handle the bombs, they inspect them carefully, relying on a video feed to a trailer on the beach, where colleagues check to see whether the weapons have experienced high-speed flight or signs of impact. The divers do not touch the bombs until all agree that the old weapons appear inert.

“We don’t take any chances,” said Tom Rancich, chief executive of VRHabilis Co., the diving company doing the work. “They’re not moved until we’re sure.”

For more information about the project, including a map showing the area being searched, read the Globe article, “Into the booming surf.”

VRHabilis in the News

VRHabilis destroys bomb found on Martha’s Vineyard beach

Nelson Sigelman of the Martha’s Vineyard Times reported on the role VRHabilis played in the demolition of a rusted aerial bomb that washed up on a local beach:

Explosives ordnance disposal (EOD) experts Friday blew up a rusted aerial bomb that washed up on Wasque Point at the southeast corner of Martha’s Vineyard. The loud explosion that reverberated across Chappaquiddick contained echoes of an earlier era.

More than 60 years ago Navy and Army pilots regularly used Tisbury Great Pond and East Beach and an area known as Little Neck on Chappaquiddick for bombing and strafing practice. The list of munitions used at Tisbury Great Pond included 100- and 500-pound practice bombs with spotting charges and .30 and .50 caliber bullets.

Over the years the remnants of those training missions, rusted practice bombs, have continued to turn up in the marsh and on the beach, most often on areas owned or managed by The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), the private conservation organization. Most of the ordnance are practice bombs that have only a small explosive charge, but a few of the discoveries have turned out to be the real thing.

Last September, federal, state, and Edgartown officials, along with TTOR representatives, established a plan to deal with unexploded bombs from the World War II era. Previously, the state police bomb squad was called to the Island to evaluate suspicious objects, but the frequent discoveries put a strain on the bomb squad’s resources. Now, when a bomb is discovered, the authorities notify West Tisbury resident Tom Rancich, a decorated 20-year veteran of the U.S. Navy who spent part of his career as a Navy Seal dealing with disposal of unexploded bombs.

Working under a contract with the Department of Environmental Protection. Mr. Rancich determines whether an object is safe to move and store, or whether it may be a live bomb that requires a controlled detonation.

Paul Schultz, assistant TTOR Chappaquiddick superintendent, discovered the bomb during a morning patrol Friday and notified Edgartown Police who then confirmed it was a bomb and contacted Mr. Rancich.

Chris Kennedy, TTOR southeast regional director, said the bomb found last week washed up almost exactly in the same spot where a similar bomb turned up last March. He suspects high winds on Thursday might have been responsible.

Mr. Kennedy said practice ordnance and some live bombs have washed up during the 20 years he has been on the job. He said there is no way of determining the danger and it is best never to assume there is no danger.

“From what I was told, they could not determine whether it was live or not so they did the safe thing and blew it up in place,” said Mr. Kennedy.

Mr. Rancich’s company, VRHabilis is under contract to investigate potential unexploded ordnance and provide training to the Trustees, lifeguards, police and other people who might come in contact with potential ordnance items. The State Police bomb squad and Navy EOD personnel from Newport have been called on to check on old window weights and other items that looked like ordnance but were not, said Mr. Rancich.

When he can conclusively determine that it is not ordnance or that it is safe to move, Mr. Rancich said he moves the item to a secure storage area for eventual recycling. If it is deemed unsafe to move, then the State police bomb squad and Navy EOD make a final determination and generally detonate the item.

Mr. Rancich said the criteria used to decide the safest course of action includes the ability to determine the identity of an object, its location and the likely hazard to the public. Generally speaking, he said it is unlikely that this type of bomb in that condition would explode “without a lot of help,” but, given the amount and variety of ordnance dropped and dumped during WWII, “it is best to assume the worst.”

As for what private citizens should do if they come upon a suspicious looking object on the beach, Mr. Rancich said, “We promote the program Recognize, Retreat, Report. Recognize that the item could be ordnance, retreat from the item the way you approached it, and report it to the police.”

View the full article online. More information on the ordnance cleanup at Martha’s Vineyard can be found in the following presentations (in PDF format): Martha’s Vineyard Ordnance and Interim Community Assistance: Martha’s Vineyard Ordnance Site.