Austin explosions took physical, emotional toll on police bomb squad
Even on a good day, members of the bomb team would likely get four or five hours of sleep
By Mark Wilson
AUSTIN, Texas — When a self-described psychopath began detonating bombs across Austin in March, police Cpl. Jesse Carrillo slept where he could.
Carrillo, a six-year technician in the Austin Police Department’s bomb squad, was running long hours responding to the blasts and a massive influx of calls for suspicious packages.
The city wondered who would be next.
Bomb Squad Lt. Courtney Renfro, who oversees the seven bomb techs, three K9 officers and sergeant of the squad, said he once found Carrillo sleeping on the floor in his office between calls.
“They were sleeping in their cars, sleeping in their offices, getting an hour here or there,” Renfro said. Even on a good day, members of the bomb team would likely get four or five hours of sleep.
Bomb squad Sgt. Jeff Dwyer said Austin police were the lead units on every bomb that was found in the city during the three weeks of attacks that ended up killing two people and injuring five others.
Dwyer said other teams provided invaluable support and equipment to the Austin bomb squad throughout the ordeal, but police cleared the way for investigators to access the sites and gather evidence that would eventually lead to the bomber, 23-year-old Mark Conditt.
“Our guys were the ones who rendered (the bomb sites) safe,” he said.
As other members ensured that the detonated devices were no longer dangerous or that no secondary explosives were nearby, Carrillo worked in the hospitals, following the trail of the victims who had been wounded or killed when they unwittingly came into contact with one of the devices. He followed the path of gurneys, and went to operating rooms to collect evidence such as nails, bolts and bandages from the victim’s bodies that held clues to the bomber’s tactics and maybe his identity.
Yet the bombings were something of a worst-case scenario for investigators because it turned out the bomber had no criminal history, Dwyer said.
“He was so far under the radar,” he said.
Meanwhile, officers worked around the clock to respond to each blast and thousands of suspicious package reports that came in from a city on edge.
“I was in utter shock that this was happening in our city,” Renfro said. “I have always told the guys to be prepared, but something told me it’s never going to happen in little Austin.”
To make matters worse, the explosions were happening during one of the busiest times of the year for the bomb squad. In March, Austin hosted the South by Southwest festivals and the PGA Tour — two major events where explosives teams are responsible for sweeping venues to ensure safety. Visits by several VIPs also required extra security and bomb squad responses.
“At that point, we were overwhelmed and started working 12-, 14- or 16-hour days with the technicians trying to not only detect, but prevent future bombings,” Renfro said.
Austin police put out a call to the San Antonio and Houston police bomb squads, as well as the Texas Department of Public Safety, FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for help, but Austin police were still taking the lead at every bomb site.
“They had the equipment, they went out and they did this work and they succeeded. Yes, they needed help, but there’s only so many of them, and so many hours in the day and such a long event,” Renfro said. “We were fortunate enough to have these other partners not ask a second question. When we asked for help they were here.”
Renfro said he had hoped he would never have to test the state’s regional bomb squad structure, in which squads throughout Texas can call on other agencies when the burden becomes too great. But the takeaway from the Austin bombings was that the system worked.
Before police warned the public about suspicious packages possibly connected to a serial bomber, APD’s bomb squad would typically respond to one or two suspicious-package calls each month. In the days after the second and third blasts on March 12, authorities received hundreds of reports.
Renfro said that by last Friday, Austin police had received around 2,500 such calls since March 12, and more were coming in every day.
Patrol officers responded to every single report and conducted a threat assessment to determine whether they needed to call bomb technicians.
“I remember sitting in the command post and just staying on the telephone for hours and hours helping officers conduct the threat assessment based upon the knowledge I had from the bomber’s MO at the time to decide whether or not we should send a bomb tech,” Renfro said. “My bomb technicians, likewise, stayed on their phones with their contacts for hours and hours helping patrolmen conduct threat assessments as they were responding to these thousands of calls.”
Renfro said technicians were sent out to more than 300 of those calls.
“We had (individual technicians) responding to more calls during this time period in a week than we did with the entire team in the entire region the previous year,” he said.
Carrillo said a flood of new reports rushed into dispatch every time a bomb went off.
“When a blast would happen, we would all have to respond,” Carrillo said. “Just as things would slow down, there would be another explosion.”
Renfro remembered arriving home after a 16-hour day and finding Amazon packages on his doorstep. He said even he had to pause, even though he knew he’d ordered them.
His team felt the emotional weight of it, too.
“From what I saw, they went through stages of grief, like anybody would,” Renfro said. “I saw anger at the person that was doing this. I saw sadness for the victims. But mostly, I saw determination and grit in them to accomplish their duties and make things safe for the investigation to proceed and reach a conclusion to it.”
Renfro said he always had concern for the men on his team as he sent them out to investigate the latest bombing, but he was also confident in their ability to get the job done.
“I wasn’t worried about them getting hurt because I have so much faith and trust in their judgment and their capability. It’s kind of odd. We’re dealing with dangerous bombs, but I had no doubt that they could defeat it and render it safe,” he said. “My main concern the whole time was our community, with this domestic terrorist out here randomly picking victims to terrorize or injure.”
In the map below, red dots represent suspicious package calls Austin police received in 48 hours from 8 a.m. on March 12 – just after 17-year-old Draylen Mason was killed by a bomb in the 4800 block of Oldfort Hill Drive – through 9 a.m. on March 14. The blue markers show locations where bombs were detonated, found or traced.
©2018 Austin American-Statesman, Texas