It’s a Friday morning shortly before 7:30 a.m. when the young man rolls his suitcase in front of the U.S. embassy beneath the glass roof of the main entrance at Pariser Platz 2, next to the Brandenburg Gate. Above him flutters the stars and stripes. The man sets down the suitcase, addresses a guard and says he must enter the building to renew his passport.
The guard is suspicious; such matters are handled by the U.S. consulate in Berlin’s suburban Zehlendorf district. Then, out of nowhere, the man punches the guard in the face. A brief struggle ensues and the assailant is wrestled to the ground. Two German policemen rush over to help. Before the man is taken away, he shouts: “There’s a bomb in the suitcase!” He claims to be seeking to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden.
A few minutes later, Sven Bergen’s bomb squad gets a telephone call.
That was a year ago. Today, Mr. Bergen is sitting in his office across from Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport, known as the site of the airlift by Allied forces to transport food to West Berlin during the Soviet blockade from 1948 to 1949.
Mr. Bergen has short blond hair and wears a black shirt. A muscular fellow who wouldn’t be out of place in a Bruce Willis action film, he has been defusing bombs for 23 years. Speaking with a thick Berlin accent, Mr. Bergen says he no longer gets an adrenaline rush on the job. “You simply function.” For him, fear comes afterwards – if at all. It helps to view each incident as a “technical problem,” and to forget that his family is waiting at home. “Those who are in denial have a clear-cut advantage,” he says, before adding, “I’m one of them.”
Mr. Bergen carefully considers every word in this conversation – otherwise he could endanger lives.
Mr. Bergen carefully considers every word in this conversation – otherwise he could endanger lives. The 55-year-old police veteran heads the eight-man bomb squad in Berlin’s State Office of Criminal Investigation, which is called into action whenever a suspicious suitcase, plastic bag or shoe box is discovered in Berlin. Which is not so infrequently. There were more than 400 incidents last year, and many false alarms. Such was the case last Monday, when the Mr. Bergen and his team cordoned off a public square in Berlin’s Neukölln district to investigate a suitcase that ended up containing discarded electronic junk.
Mr. Bergen says that each year, there are tens of thousands of attacks throughout the world, with only 1 to 2 percent subsequently reported in the media. That is, until recently.
Today, images of attacks in Ansbach, Würzburg, Brussels or Paris are omnipresent. And while politicians warn against panic, others worry about a “subjective sense of security” and people have become more distrustful. This perfect storm of anxiety and contradictory impulses impacts the bomb squad with every call: “Afterwards there is a wave-shaped increase in operations, always for three weeks.”
Today’s atmosphere of alarm has certainly taken its toll. For up to 15 weeks a year, Mr. Bergen is not allowed to leave Berlin. Indeed, he knows colleagues who seldom dare to leave the house when on call. “I try to maintain as much of a daily routine as possible,” he says.
This can be difficult when acting as one of the most important safeguards against those intent on killing. And while he can’t reveal much about his job, Mr. Bergen understands the public interest, and believes it would be helpful if citizens knew that in these challenging times, the state is not without a plan. Mr. Bergen is proud of the fact that he employs specialists who give their all to prevent terrorism. “On the other hand, any bit of information that I heedlessly divulge could help the opposite side,” he says judiciously.
Last year, it was unclear whether the suitcase placed in front of the U.S. embassy posed any real danger. The deranged owner could have been lying. He could have spontaneously come up with the idea of it containing explosives. Or he could have carefully planned the operation. He could be an attention seeker or a psychopath. Or neither. Or both.
At the time, the suitcase, made of dark-blue textile and zipped-up, stood upright on the sidewalk. Any movement could cause it to explode. However, the situation is not without a silver lining, namely location. Because it was accessible from multiple sides, the bomb squad’s robot could approach.
The machine that Mr. Bergen’s team uses is known as Teodor, an acronym for the name of the manufacturer as well as the designation of its function: “The explosive ordnance disposal and observations robot.” Teodor weighs 350 kilograms and moves on metallic treads like a tank. At the moment, it is stationed in an underground garage, where Mr. Bergen has agreed to show it.
The parking level below the State Office of Criminal Investigation in Berlin is heavily guarded. Only a few pigeons manage to enter without authorization, having learned to fly through the gating. The cars for Mr. Bergen’s team aren’t parked alongside the other emergency vehicles, but in a separate area. “Because of the explosives and weapons they carry,” says Mr. Bergen. “And because not everyone is supposed to take a look inside.”
He draws open a steel grating to reveal two white Mercedes trucks, each with a Teodor in the back. Mr. Bergen opens the trunk to reveal a somewhat unspectacular machine that resembles a giant lawnmower outfitted with six wheels on each side, five cameras, a grappler that can lift 80 kilograms and, most importantly, a water cannon. The latter is what is actually used to disarm bombs.
Fired at close range, the high-pressure stream rips through cables, switches, metal containers and almost any other material in five thousandths of a second. That is faster than an electrical impulse can be released.
This is how Teodor took care of the suitcase in front of the U.S. embassy. From a safe distance, Mr. Bergen’s team maneuvered the robot up close, aimed the cannon and fired. The suitcase burst open to reveal only clothes and DVD cases.
Teodor was built at Oppingen in Baden-Württemberg, in a tiny industrial area near Ulm. It’s made by Telerob, a mid-sized company which, after the accident at Chernobyl, developed robots that can enter radiation-filled buildings after a meltdown and handle clean-up operations. Today bomb defusal is its chief field of business.
On the telephone, chief executive Thomas Biehne says that 550 robots of the Teodor model are being used throughout the world: “Most of them by police forces or armies of NATO states.” Only two units have been damaged by explosions, both in Afghanistan when German soldiers sought to defuse an explosive. One Teodor was totally destroyed.
The vacuum can rip apart lungs, trachea, spleen.
In Berlin, an explosives team is always on standby alert. But it isn’t immediately summoned once a citizen has reported a suspicious object. First the policeman on the scene must decide that the object is too suspicious to be touched by him and must be classified as “suspected of containing explosives.” This evaluation can be based on a gut feeling but is often determined by details: a strange sticker, proximity to a Jewish kindergarten, an eyewitness who saw a suspect running away. The policeman reports to a superior. Only if that officer considers the suspicion to be plausible is the bomb squad notified. It never takes more than an hour from the telephone call to the arrival of the experts, says Mr. Bergen. “Even during the night all the way out to the suburbs.”
A bomb defuser requires a certain obstinacy. For example, he must refuse to begin working until the entire surroundings have been cleared. Mr. Bergen tells of police chiefs who ask, “Why do we have to move everyone away before you take an X-ray?” “Because the terrorist perhaps knows that I’ll be taking an X-ray,” Mr. Bergen always answers. “And then uses that.”
The Berlin police used to have a robot called “Hobo,” designed by an Irish firm. “It could be guided quite precisely,” recounts Mr. Bergen. But its correct functioning was more the exception than the rule. Teodor is extremely dependable. There has only been a problem once. During an operation in May 2015 at Alexanderplatz, it suddenly stopped responding to guidance signals, went in circles, ran over a bicycle and fell over. Mr. Bergen says the problem has seen been eliminated.
The robot can negotiate stairs and inclined surfaces of up to 45 degrees. But often the suspicious object is located somewhere the robot can’t reach. Then Mr. Bergen’s life is in danger, because he has to deal with the bomb himself.
A protective suit is stored on a shelf in the Sprinter van. The Kevlar layered system, 40 kilograms. Mr. Bergen can only get into it with the help of a colleague. Then there is a helmet with a cooling system and ventilator, so that the visor doesn’t fog over. During the operation, a slight excess pressure is generated. The greatest danger from explosions at close range is not bomb fragments or ripped-off limbs but changes in pressure. First the extreme rise, then the sudden plunge below zero. The vacuum can rip apart lungs, trachea, spleen.
In other countries, there are frequent deaths during bomb defusal operations. Most recently last week in Quetta in Pakistan. In Nigeria, a defusal expert was killed by a bomb planted by Boko Haram. In 2015, an Egyptian explosives specialist was killed at a gas station in downtown Cairo; there is a video on YouTube. Wearing a protective suit, the man approached a flower bucket and picked up a bag. There was an explosion. He was hurled through the air and died instantly.
Mr. Bergen says that many accidents abroad are due to faulty equipment or insufficient training. Or because of the vulnerable situation of bomb defusers in authoritarian, hierarchical countries where they often must carry out orders from superiors who have even less professional knowledge than they do: “That couldn’t happen here.”
German explosives experts must sign a declaration of voluntary action; they can’t be forced to do anything. When conducting an operation in Berlin, they are authorized to issue orders to all other police personnel on the scene. Nevertheless, accidents do occur. One colleague lost a hand from an explosion, and his vision was severely impaired.
In the van, all sorts of tools lie alongside the robot. Respirator masks, a set of hooks and cords with which a rope-way can be set up in case the suspicious object must first be removed from a building. And a black knapsack with items one wouldn’t think a bomb defuser would need: fishing line, glow sticks, a Silly String dispenser. It can be sprayed into a space to identify invisible wires that could trigger a bomb.
Mr. Bergen says this is just what his profession requires: individual solutions to unexpected problems. Last summer, bomb deactivators from Japan were visiting Berlin. The two words most often heard were “improvised solutions.”
Mr. Bergen wears a silver ring on his left hand. Everyone on his squad has one. Engraved on it is an exploding shell, then three letters: IED. They stand for “improvised explosive device.” Or in Berliner dialect, the team members say: “Ick entschärf’ dit” – “I’ll defuse it.”
This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel, a Berlin daily and sister publication to Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org