LETHBRIDGE — A well-meaning attempt to turn in an old military weapon exploded into turmoil Tuesday afternoon, forcing an evacuation of police headquarters and tying up traffic in downtown Lethbridge for the better part of three hours.
The drama unfolded just before noon Tuesday when a man came into the Lethbridge regional police station carrying what officials later determined was a pre-First World War anti-tank explosive device.
The man waited at the front counter for a while, according to police, but when he saw that staff members were all busy, he simply put the small, rusted antique on the counter and left.
When police realized that the dropped-off device was a potentially live explosive with a detonator attached, they evacuated the building.
Nearly 100 police officers and civilian staff rushed outside and across the street, leaving their lunches on their desks as the fire department arrived for backup.
Police directed traffic away from the police station, causing a backlog of idling cars through the downtown until the explosive was removed and staff were allowed back inside.
The local explosive disposal unit sent in a bomb robot to fetch the device and place it in the back of a sandbag-loaded City of Lethbridge pickup truck.
It was then driven to a gravel pit, prompting officials to close Highway 3 to all traffic while the large vehicle made its way down the road.
From the gravel pit, officials awaited the arrival of explosives experts from Canadian Forces Base Suffield to identify the device and then safely blow it up.
Canadian Forces personnel have more experience dealing with military explosives than Lethbridge police, said Insp. Jeff Cove.
“You really want to make sure that you have the right people with the right level of expertise, and in Lethbridge we just don’t have the call for our guys to go and take those things apart,” he said.
“The difficulty is it was so old and rusted and they couldn’t tell from the threads on the device if it had been unscrewed and the explosives removed from it,” Cove added. “We didn’t have enough information to be able to proceed and risk somebody’s life and safety.”
Cove said he didn’t know how much calling in the Department of National Defence or evacuating the police station would cost taxpayers.
The evacuation didn’t affect emergency 911 calls, which are handled through a local dispatch centre, but Cove said it’s difficult to estimate how much police productivity was lost.
“Most of the officers that were there today were ones that were working anyway, but still you’re occupying their time and you’re taking their attention away from other work to deal with this when it could have been dealt with if the fellow had just waited at the front counter to tell us what it was, or better yet, phone us and we’ll come and get it.”
Police don’t believe the man who dropped off the device did so with any malicious or criminal intent, but they’d still like to talk to him.
Never before has a citizen tried to dispose of a military weapon at the Lethbridge police station — a serious no-no, said Cove.
“We have tried to communicate to the public if you have explosive ordnance, old souvenirs that you want to get rid of, please don’t bring them to the police station,” he said. “Call us. We’re more than happy to come and pick them up and we will collect them and dispose of them for you. You can’t go to the front counter of the police station and just drop these off, and you especially can’t go in, drop these off and leave. We need to know what they are.”
A similar military ammunition discovery last fall didn’t cause as much chaos when residents called police instead of trying to handle the weapons themselves.
A house in Coaldale, east of Lethbridge, was getting ready to go on the market in October 2011 when two 19-inch training or illuminating rounds were uncovered, one with the pin still attached. The explosives were designed to be fired from an aircraft. In that case, too, the Canadian Forces Base at Suffield sent an explosives expert to collect and destroy the rounds.