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Bombs in Budapest

Bombs, grenades, landmines and explosives of all types are the mementos of war. Even though fighting last occurred in the city decades ago, Budapest remains littered with things that could make it go boom.

Bomb experts were called upon once more at the end of June to diffuse a World War II explosive uncovered during the ongoing overhaul of the Margit Bridge. Following the usual protocol, the perimeter was secured, transport redirected and residents in the nearby buildings were asked to leave their homes for a while. The situation was resolved in a few hours. But the threat is there, since this most recent of findings to get media coverage involved just one of thousands of explosives found in Budapest every year.

In fact, ongoing construction projects unearthing explosives have become an almost everyday news item. “Each year we respond to around 2,500 calls,” Major Tibor Major, chief of operations for bomb disposal at the Hungarian military said. “This year, we have already had more than 1,000.”

World War II made sure that builders in Hungary will have scary moments and explosives experts will stay busy. And it is no surprise when looking at the extent of the fighting that took place in the country during WWII. “Considering its length, the committed manpower and materials, the siege of Budapest is among the top three in all of military history, almost on par with Stalingrad,” according to Lieutenant Colonel Vilmos Kovács, an expert at the Museum of Military History.

Bombs everywhere

Experts have a fairly good understanding of where the hot spots are, since the targets during wartime are obvious. The attacking force naturally aims for strategic locations, such as bridges, military installations, traffic junctions and industrial complexes. But as both Kovács and Major underlined, there are many more explosives to be found, for a number of different reasons.

The Trianon Treaty — besides the territorial arrangements — obliged Hungary to reduce its military capabilities. The solution often involved taking explosives that were over the quota and just burying them. Kovács added that explosives under the ground could be there for a range of even more trivial reasons, like a grenade stockpile in a defense line being overrun by the enemy and getting buried in the process.

Likewise, planes didn’t necessarily deliver their payload to the intended destinations. Apart from the possibility that they simply missed, aircraft in distress were forced to drop their bombs where they were, adding a number of random sites to the overall picture.

Deeper underground

The primary reason that so many bombs are found nowadays stems simply from the advancement of construction technologies, involving foundations reaching deeper into the earth or building underground structures like garages. If the conditions are right, a bomb can dig in pretty deep, as builders frequently experience.

A perfect example is the Infopark office complex near the Lágymányosi Bridge. The site is in the direct vicinity of both a railroad bridge as well as the former Weiss Manfréd industrial complex on Csepel Island, making it a natural strategic target. Furthermore, the terrain in those parts is “ideal” for accommodating unexploded bombs. “Over loose ground, a one-ton bomb dropped from 2,000 meters could burrow as deep as 30 meters,” Kovács said. Unsurprisingly, its construction was frequently interrupted by finding bombs.

In harm’s way

Bomb squad professionals have their work cut out for them. Besides the fact that they are putting their lives at risk with every device they defuse, they also have to cope with their every-day duties working with limited resources.

Without divulging the actual number of explosives experts in the military, Major noted that they are stretched thin. “We can fully perform our duties, but we are working at full capacity,” he said.

The danger is also very real for the residents of areas where a device is found, who have to leave the vicinity while the bomb squad is at work. “We have a formula for calculating the extent of the evacuation zone depending on the type of the explosive,” Major said.

However, the expert in charge must also take into consideration local factors, such as the proximity of gas and power lines and the density of the buildings, which could also result in deaths if things go awry.

As Kovács described it, shrapnel — the metal casing of the device — going everywhere when it detonates behaves much like a puddle of mud after somebody steps into it. But unlike getting some dirt on your pants, these pieces are driven with such volumes of energy that even the tiniest piece is capable of killing someone. Given these possibilities, the standard extent of the evacuation area is by no means an “overkill.”

In case of an explosion, shrapnel could travel huge distances at great speed, ricochet off walls, potentially hitting someone. The same applies for windows, which could break from the shock or sound waves triggered by the detonation, likely to cause injuries.

At the same time, Kovács pointed out that the media has a tendency to go overboard when reporting on the implications. “You hear that if the bomb found were to detonate, it could destroy the whole neighborhood and kill everyone. Thousands of these bombs were dropped during the war. If that were true, we wouldn’t have a city anymore.”

No day at the beach

The situation is even more difficult when an explosive is found underwater, like near a bridge. In such circumstances the bomb squad often works with near-zero visibility and still has to identify the device and make a decision on a course of action. As Major, a recognized expert of handling explosives found underwater, explains, they measure the device against their own height, try to add some visible markers or do whatever they have to do to identify it and assure its safe defusing.

Zero-visibility underwater identification is probably one of the extremes of the profession (not counting wartime), but even sunny skies don’t make the job that much easier. Hungary’s position in WWII meant that a whole range of varieties — German, Soviet, British, American, Romanian and Bulgarian bombs — were dropped all around. While fundamentally the same, each make is different, something that an expert has to know just by having a look.

“You have to be decisive in a situation that is nothing but uncertainty,” Major said, summing up the extreme challenges involved. Asked why someone would do the job in the first place, he said “You need to have passion. It can’t be about the money. You have to love it, especially when you realize the extent of the danger and the required learning needed to be good at the job.”

How to evacuate

When it comes to handling a bomb-related crisis situation, experts in Hungary have plenty of experience. One of the most recent major incidents was in July of 2008, when up to 10,000 residents had to leave their homes in the Angyalföld district of Budapest after finding an American made GP type explosive weighing 500 kilograms.

The attending law enforcement officials began the evacuations by patrolling the streets and informing residents of the designated safe points through the loudspeakers on police cars. In this case, the destinations were two nearby school buildings and the Vasas sports complex.

“We were instantly provided with soft drinks, and later sandwiches; there was even food for the dogs,” a local resident told the BBJ, underlining that the officials took control of the situation. In the corridors of the school where he was directed, there were also beds set up for those of poor health, or those who were simply tired.

Besides the fact that nobody is happy to be kicked out of their home for whatever reason, those sitting around at the school waiting for the bomb squad to do their business felt well-informed. “Whenever there were developments, someone from the local government would tell the crowd what was going on and what they could expect.”

Despite the extent of the evacuations, the bomb experts resolved the situation and after about roughly four hours, everyone was allowed to return to their homes.

Reproduced from the July 16 issue of the Budapest Business Journal.