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Air Force: Leave Tybee Bomb undisturbed

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Air Force: Leave Tybee Bomb undisturbed

Foreign Affairs News
Source: Savannah Morning News
Published: 12 Jul 01 Author: Ben Werner
Posted on 07/12/2001 05:26:06 PDT by real saxophonist
Air Force: Leave Tybee Bomb undisturbed

By Ben Werner

Savannah Morning News

What happens to a bomb left in the sea?

Does it rust out over time, contaminating the nearby floor, or will it roll around the shallows, eventually washing ashore?

When talking about the Tybee Bomb, lost in 1958, the United States government says it wants nothing but slow aging to take this Cold War relic away.

Let sleeping bombs lie, the U. S. Air Force says, and other federal agencies appear to agree.

The risks posed by poking around the Wassaw Sound looking for the bomb are said to far outweigh any presented by the aging device entombed an estimated five to 15 feet below the ocean floor. That's the conclusion of a Department of Energy report on the Tybee Bomb issued in February. It's what the Air Force is saying now.

On Wednesday, after meeting with U. S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., Air Force officials said they had no intention of retrieving or locating the Tybee Bomb. Though some people fear the Tybee Bomb might be armed for a nuclear explosion, the Air Force says this is not true.

"The biggest danger would be just digging could cause damage to the environment," said Maj. Cheryl Law, public affairs officer for the U. S. Air Force.

In a U. S. Department of Energy report, government officials decided, based on the bomb's estimated location and depth, there is a minimal threat of the bomb exploding unless someone specifically sets out to jostle the devise around

Officials fear that an explosion, if it occurred, would harm the Floridan Aquifer -- the main source of drinking water for the greater Savannah area. The threat to people on Tybee Island, using the nearby shipping lanes or even recreational boaters, though, is nonexistent, said Law.

"We began working with the Air Force immediately after I learned about the potential existence of the old bomb last year," Kingston said. "Today I feel confident that the experts did their job. I'm happy to hear that the people living, working and playing on Tybee Island are safe."

Not worried about the Tybee Bomb is Kathryn Williams, interim director of the Tybee Marine Science Center. Each day, she arrives at work to teach children and tourists about the natural history of the beach without fear of an impending explosion.

In the summer, the center hosts guided beach walks, often using nets to pull creatures and objects out of the sea. Occasionally people ask about the bomb but it's out of curiosity, not concern, Williams said.

"We have not anticipated any explosion off the coast," she said. "The greater impact is the more immediate things -- the litter and things like that that should not be out there."

Williams believes people are trying to ignore the possibility that the Tybee Bomb is out there so they don't have to add it a list of island worries that includes flooding, hurricane, northeasters and over development increasing traffic.

Derek Duke, a Statesboro man who devised a plan to locate the Tybee Bomb for the Air Force, says he still has a lot of questions about this weapon. What disappoints him, though, is that -- in his view -- the Air Force's decision is based on fears that such a search would harm the environment and might injure recovery team personnel.

Duke is president of an underwater recovery company, American Seashore Underwater Recovery Expedition, that proposed searching for and locating the Tybee Bomb for $1 million. He said the company would use technology that wouldn't harm the environment.

Once located, the military would take over the bomb's recovery, he added.

Government officials, though, say the best chance for the bomb to explode is if people start messing with it.

The Department of Energy estimated that an explosion would affect an area less than 1,000 feet in circumference, with the greatest threat coming from heavy metal contamination.

Since the bomb's nuclear device was not on the plane, Air Force officials say, there is a negligible threat of uranium contamination.

Law said the Air Force had not devised a plan for the Tybee Bomb's future, if it were ever to be located.

Bill Walsh, owner of Walsh Docks on Tybee Island, has been doing salvage diving and dock building in the area since 1978. Walsh calls the Tybee Bomb a "farce."

For years shrimpers have been dragging the area, and believes if the Tybee Bomb ever was there, it would have been found by now.

He describes the whole incident as a ploy by an unscrupulous salvage company to make money off the government.

"The best thing is to let it go away. Nobody needs to worry about it," Walsh said.

Even Duke admits that Wednesday's Air Force decision, if not challenged by residents of Georgia, means the Tybee Bomb question is over.

"I have to go on to other things," Duke said. "I've given two years of my life to this."

So what happens to a bomb left in the sea? Can it slowly fester and rot away, or will it just sag and corrode?

Or does it explode?

Save for natural acts of biblical proportions that would uncover Tybee's Bomb, the government says it should just melt away into distant memory; there's nothing to see here, just move along.

Business reporter Ben Werner can be reached at 652-0381 or by e-mail at bwerner@savannahnow.com

Environmental reporter Gail Krueger and military reporter Noelle Phillips contributed to this story.

The history of the bomb

On Feb. 8, 1958, a bomb was jettisoned after a B-47 bomber and a F-86 jet fighter collided during a training exercise. After attempting to land the B-47 several times, the bomber pilot decided he couldn't land his plane safely with the bomb aboard and received permission to drop it off the coast. The pilot landed safely, and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts. The fighter pilot parachuted out and his jet crashed near Sylvania.

For more than a month after the incident, U. S. Navy and Air Force crews searched for the bomb, but stopped in March. Today nobody is sure what happened to the bomb. It is thought to be lying in the seabed, anywhere from five to 15 feet down. The Air Force was asked to look into the bomb's situation last summer by U. S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. He made this request after Derek Duke, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and president of an underwater recovery company, submitted a $1 million plan to locate the Tybee Bomb.


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