Originally written in May 2011.
Have you ever been handed something quite dangerous?? I’m sure that at some point in our live our well-meaning friends and associates have managed to ask us to take possession of something they would rather not be holding onto themselves. Lit firecrackers, running chainsaws, electrical leads, loaded guns, dirty nappies etc. Maybe even the extraordinarily nice chap at customs in Thailand who asks if you could please run his rather heavy carry-on bag through the screening process while he nips off to the loo. Well in my line of work this can sometimes happen too. The trouble is what to do about it when it does occur.
Our obviously preferred method of being introduced to ordnance is for the local population to leave it safely where it is and then lead us to its location. This is much better all-round as it gives us a chance to investigate the offending item in relative safety before deciding what to do with it. Our least preferred method is when people attempt to physically hand you something they have just proudly fetched for you. This generally goes one of two ways;
Firstly you take the item off them, trying to act as nonchalantly as possible, before requesting that everybody please take cover at a suitable distance as you attempt to place the object back onto the ground whilst keeping your arm attached to your body. Sub-munitions are wonderful for this, as they are notoriously unstable and generally not a good idea to be carrying about your person.
The other way of course is to let the person carrying the item know that you think it’s dangerous. This can be achieved in a number of ways, by simply looking in horror at what he is doing to running away and diving for cover behind the nearest solid object. The offending person, now realising he is holding something he shouldn’t be, tends to then do one of two things. Try and throw the item away, or just drop it at his / your feet. Option two generally ends badly for somebody, and often for more than one person at a time.
Although being led to the site of explosive ordnance can have its drawbacks as well. Some people have the rather suicidal habit of walking into the middle of minefields in order to show somebody where it is. The most dreaded reply you can hear to the inquiry of “So where is this minefield mate??” is to be told, quite matter of factly;
“It’s all around you!”
This is how one of our operators, Aldo, lost his leg. Upon hearing this fateful reply he took “nought but a half step backwards”, in his account, and BANG. His colleague upon hearing the explosion took a pace forward in reflex to help and BANG.
Now you can imagine I’m sure the shock of losing the lower half of your leg. If you make a habit of playing with chainsaws you may even have firsthand experience. Fortunately adrenalin is a wonderful substance and can keep your body functioning long enough to get away from your immediate danger. This is how soldiers can continue to engage the enemy after being shot or quite seriously injured. The unfortunate thing about adrenalin is that it doesn’t last that long, which is why the afore mentioned soldier tends to collapse and die after extracting himself from the dangerous area. Aldo, noticing his mate wasn’t moving and his guide was nowhere to be seen, spent the next 2-3 excruciating hours carefully crawling his way back to his vehicle using his fingers to probe the ground for mines. I dare anyone, anyone, to go take off the lower part of a leg and then perform this kind of feat in a live minefield. Go on, I can wait……………………….
So for those of you not stupid enough to do this at home I hope you can appreciate the lengths this man went to. He made it back to his vehicle, called for assistance and stayed with it long enough for help to arrive before allowing himself the luxury of passing out from shock and blood loss. Aron Ralston would have an idea of what this could be like, for the rest of us….
The end result, well both EOD techs lived and are still operating. As for the guide, well upon hearing the two explosions he ran for home, at top speed, and stayed there without telling anyone what had happened. He basically tried to kill them twice, though did somehow manage to run through a minefield unharmed.
So why bring this story up now, well I think it’s time for a gruesome week as mine turned rather sour. We had been moving along quite nicely, in fact we had reached that happy stage where everything was happening as it should, the teams were doing everything exactly right and we were making excellent progress. Gaz had joined us by now. Gaz is an extremely likable man from the UK who was new to G4S in Sudan. Gaz had been employed only to find out there was no team for him to lead which meant he was seconded to me. (He had been with my team for a couple of weeks and was beginning to find his feet, though this is awfully hard to do when you are playing with someone else’s team). I had just finished giving the morning brief for the demolitions serials we were to conduct that day. As the team left the briefing area ready to disperse to their sentry positions, BANG.
An explosion that you are not prepared for can come as quite a shock at first. Chris, Gaz and I looked at each other, located the emerging cloud from the nearby explosion and hopped into a vehicle and rushed to the site. The medics and deminers were told to call our HQ and follow us. When we arrived a gaggle of Sudanese had already mustered at the site but there was nobody doing anything except standing around. After forcing my way through the throng I found a man lying on the ground. He had been hand ploughing the surrounding area and, to be honest, my initial impressions were that he was dead. So I knelt down next to him in order to confirm this. I could see no movement, felt no pulse and was getting fairly certain of my initial evaluation when he suddenly coughed and moaned. Now I am no doctor, nor do I have anything except advanced first aid medical training, but I am fairly certain that dead men don’t cough, nor do they moan, nor do they try and get up. So unless he was a zombie (which I highly doubted as I have never heard of zombies getting into agriculture) he was alive, and in a fair bit of trouble.
The young man in question had been digging in our danger area, something we had asked people not to do a number of times. Do you remember how your mum taught you that sticking forks into electrical sockets was dangerous?? Did you listen or did you have to wait until you ended up across the room, still slightly tingling with a hairdo that would make those amusingly extremely racist black and white minstrel show performers jealous?? The Sudanese I had met so far generally ended up in the latter category. The poor man had managed to function what we believe was an RPG. The effect of this was that he had nearly blown off both legs (they were being held together by his tendons), was missing his right hand, had shrapnel wounds through his torso and jaw, and had a sucking chest wound. All in all not a pretty site, and it was now our job to try and get him to hospital fast. I won’t go into the details of what we did to try and patch him up, all I will say is that it involved tourniquets, attempting to hold his legs together while we turned him over, lots of blood and very little help from the locals.
An interesting observation from all this was to witness the reactions from my deminers and medics. Shock is powerful, so is the fight or flight response. Some people will just move into action, start working and get on with it. Others will stand still as if in a trance. You never know what your response will be and I would never judge anyone on their reaction. At one point I asked one of my team to kneel next to this poor mans head and just talk to him, tell him he would be alright. He managed to kneel but couldn’t talk, he just stared. So I moved him on and got someone else to do it instead. It’s not a weakness, just a reaction – especially seeing something like this the first time. (Not that it would have made a lot of difference as he was bleeding from both ears and I am fairly certain had blown both his eardrums.) The only person that concerned me was Chris’ medic. Gaz had to drag her out of the ambulance and make her come over and help. This was concerning as she was supposed to be the one who would help anyone on Chris’ team if they were unfortunate and had an accident like this. Demining accidents are never pretty and you have to be very fortunate to keep everything intact. It was, in our view, a major flaw and not how a medic in this line of work should behave.
The aftermath, well he was never going to go hiking again, and I really hope he was left handed (have you ever tried brushing your teeth with the opposite hand?? Give it a go). Insensitive – sure. True – absolutely. Sometimes the two observations go hand in hand. As with most accidents in my line of work this one ended badly, though maybe fortunately so. The man in question died in hospital. The facility we took him to just wasn’t equipped to deal with trauma that severe and he bled out. We think, though can’t prove, that they just released the tourniquets and let him go. Why do we think this?? Well Chris had to go back to the hospital to retrieve our stretcher and the body was still on it. He hadn’t even made it close to an operating theatre. So why would I call this this death fortunate?? Well the future for a deaf man in Sudan with no legs and no right hand would be very bleak indeed.
The moral to this tale is that if you are told something is dangerous, it probably is. Some things you can’t mess with and explosives are one of them. If, during your travels, you find yourself in a country that has UXO or landmines then steer clear of those areas, and pay attention to the warning signs. It’s not brave and it’s not cool to mess with UXO, just stupid, and if it goes wrong it never ends well.