Photos from the Vault

Before 1987, the county bomb squad’s suit looked like a baseball catcher

Gary Hoving models the bomb squad’s new $8,000 suit in January 1987, while Jim Mulhall holds the old protection gear.
Gary Hoving models the bomb squad’s new $8,000 suit in January 1987, while Jim Mulhall holds the old protection gear. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

An $8,000 suit may sound like a luxury, but there is a catch.

It is hard to dance in and the suit is hot, heavy and uncomfortable.

On the bright side, one size fits all.

It was made for the bomb squad. Worn to defuse any situation, literally.

The county Bomb Task Force was formed in 1983, according to a story by Gary Taylor in the Sept. 21, 1989, Telegram-Tribune.

In the first six years of operation, they were called to a wild assortment of scenarios.

Boring is not part of the job description. Among the cases they handled:

▪  Aging stocks of unstable ether or nitroglycerine, where any false move results in boom.

▪  Live ammunition, grenades and mines brought home as potentially deadly souvenirs.

▪  A cache of dynamite from a construction site’s explosives magazine that was about to be overrun by the Las Pilitas fire.

▪  Incidents with live explosives and intent to cause harm, interspersed with random pranks or false alarms.

It is a job without a Casual Friday.

The need for the unit became an item of discussion among local law enforcement agencies after the 1974 bombing of Hearst Castle by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

About 9 years later, the unit had three founding members: Jerry Lenthall from the San Luis Obispo Police Department and Jim Mulhall and Gary Hoving from the Sheriff’s Department.

The height difference between Jim Mulhall and Jerry Lenthall led to to good-natured ribbing between the members.

The primitive protective gear that they started with looked like an armored baseball catcher’s chest protector and a motorcycle helmet.

Today, the unit has a truck equipped with robotic and other equipment that often allows remote evaluation of a situation. This makes the job safer, but caution is still a core value.

The reporter who wrote the following story, Dan Parker, carried the nickname “Tex” when he worked here.

Tex is back in his native state at the Port Aransas “South Jetty” where the weekly paper he works at will be distributed one day late this week.

Hurricane Harvey first came ashore there and we wish Dan and his fellow Texans the best as they work toward recovery.

Telegram-Tribune published this bomb squad story Jan. 24, 1987:

Bomb squad well-suited for the job

Lying in the back of a San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office van is an $8,000 suit that’s tailored for serious business.

It’s the county Bomb Task Force’s brand-new bomb suit.

The latest in projectile-proof fashion, it is 60 pounds of layered, knitted Kevlar, a material also used for building airplane frames.

The task force purchased the suit in December from Safeco, a Canadian firm. It was expensive partly because only 10 were made. Various city police departments in the county contributed to paying the cost.

The county’s bomb technicians got their first opportunity to use the suit Thursday.

Robert Bullock found a hand grenade in a pile of trash near a house he recently bought at Homestead Road and Highway 41 in rural Templeton.

The weapon was a World War II-era British model, and it was live.

With each new incident, a different member of the bomb squad handles the explosive in question.

On Thursday, it was Jim Mulhall’s turn.

Handling explosives is a sought-after task. “We tend to argue over who gets to do it,” said Mulhall.

With the help of other bomb squad members, Mulhall, a sheriff’s detective, strapped on the heavy armor until it covered almost every part of his body. The trousers have feet like a child’s pajamas that extend over his feet. A specially made helmet covered his head.

A battery-powered air circulator kept the helmet’s thick Lexan glass (stronger than plexiglass) face shield from fogging up. It also cooled Mulhall.

Only Mulhall’s hands remained exposed, his fingers unencumbered to allow the delicate work of handling explosives.

While everyone stood clear, Mulhall gingerly picked up the grenade and slowly carried it away from the house.

Still moving almost as slowly as he could, he lowered the grenade into a small hole the squad had dug and set two sticks of Kinapac explosives on top of it.

After Mulhall made his way away from the hole, other squad members lit a 3-minute, 45-second fuse to the Kinipac.

The explosion enlarged the hole to about 2 feet by 2 feet.

Mulhall and another squad member, Gary Hoving, were not sure how much protection the suit would have been if the grenade had prematurely exploded.

But they’re sure it would have protected the detective a lot more than their old equipment. Their old equipment consisted of only a breast plate and helmet with a slit of space for the eyes.

The new suit is heavier and more awkward, but it’s easily shed. In case of an imminent explosion, pulling a single strap will open the suit “like a clam shell,” said Mulhall. One of the next steps for local bomb technicians could be a remote control. Is a sheriff’s office robot within realistic expectations? Hoving’s response: “I think I’m worth $50,000 for a robot. My wife kind of does, too.”

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

Visit www.sanluisobispo.com/photos-from-the-vault to see old photos and read selected archives.

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