Of all the ways that terrorists can strike fear into the hearts of civilians, terror explosion with explosive devices ranks near the top. They are seemingly innocuous, covert, and can have effects lasting years beyond the blasting event. As with most survival situations, preparation and a clear head are your best bets to emerge alive from such an event.
In the early days of gunpowder and refined petroleum products, explosive devices were the domain of the wealthy and influential military leaders. Now that household chemicals and remote triggering devices are available to anybody with cash, the barriers to entry for explosive terrorism are far lower than any time in history; as such, we must each appreciate the threat, and develop personal response plans.
Part of preparing for a dangerous situation is to study and understand where the danger lies. Military-grade explosives come in the form of bombs, missiles, rockets, and grenades. While they are highly effective for their intended purposes, they are not easily attainable for international or domestic terrorists. Rather, the more likely danger is represented by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which were made popular by this country’s adversaries during recent combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
IEDs are often constructed inexpensively from household materials, which is what makes them scary—they are accessible to the vast majority of the population. They can generally be grouped into about six categories: bottle bombs, pipe bombs, pressure cooker bombs, suicide vests, vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs), and parcel bombs. This list represents approximately 2/3 of the casualties in the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars, so it is most definitely something to pay attention to—literally anybody can construct any of these weapons with materials from conventional retail sources.
What makes improvised explosives lethal?
Next, let’s look at what makes improvised explosives lethal. First off are the primary effects of the blast itself: heat, concussion, overpressure, fragmentation, and blunt trauma. Blast effects can have concussive forces in excess of 300 mph, which is double a Category 5 hurricane. For those caught in the primary blast radius, the fortunate victims will only experience minor injury and severe disorientation due to rapid stimulation of the ocular and tympanic membranes (translation: bright light and loud bangs). For comparison, the fragmentary casualty radius of a handheld grenade is generally around 15 meters; bigger explosives generally make bigger booms.
The secondary effects of a terrorist explosion can be delayed, but potentially far more lethal and frightening. Falling structures, sympathetic combustion (a fire igniting other fuel sources), and secondary detonations can claim even more victims, which might include rescue workers. In the most insidious cases, primary blasts can even herd survivors to a single gathering area or exit point where the next blast awaits them and their rescuers.
Tertiary effects of a terrorist explosive event can include blood loss, eye and ear damage, infection, and inhalation disorders. While not immediately critical, they certainly add to the body count and promote the fear that the terror event was originally intended for.
Now that we are sufficiently concerned about terrorist bombings, let’s turn to what we can do about them. As with most terrorist scenarios, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you have a friend, family member, or colleague that is exhibiting signs of radical anti-government or anti-social tendencies, this individual fits into the same profile as many of our previous perpetrators. Talk to them, and attempt to figure out what has them so irritated and what they intend to do about it.
If you see warning signs, don’t expect somebody else to make that difficult phone call—do it yourself. Worst case scenario, you lose a friend. Best case scenario, you prevented an atrocity and rescued a friend from villainy. As with suicide intervention, the upside is greater than the downside. Do your duty to your friend and your community.
Your next layer of defense is vigilance. Some bombers expect to live another day, while some do not. Be on the lookout for suspicious packages (especially in a public area), bulky duffel bags, bulky coats, inexplicable wires, and antennas. IEDs can fit in a variety of wrappings, and they all have a triggering device. The word “bomb” tends to clear people away very efficiently and generate a proper law enforcement response to clear the area and forensically trace the source. This investigation helps prevent future bombings.
If other people failed to prevent the attack and you find yourself in the immediate blast radius, you need to depend on your swift reactions for survival. If you get a chance to egress the area, do it now. Otherwise, your next second could determine life or death. Dive for protection, close your eyes and cover your ears, and try to survive the initial blast. Recall that concussive and fragmentation effects are the most lethal killers in the first seconds of an explosion, so attempt to protect yourself from these.
Once you come to your senses, give yourself a quick pat on the back, and prepare for the secondary effects. If you are indoors, the clock might be ticking for a structural failure or sympathetic explosion. Get yourself and any other victims to a safe area. The “obvious” exit might also be rigged, so don’t be shy with the lesser-used emergency exits (you won’t get fined for triggering the alarm, I promise). By removing yourself and any other ambulatory victims, you are allowing rescuers and emergency responders to focus on the most critical victims, which increases the overall survival rate of the event.
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Once you make it to safety (preferably away from the building and not in the middle of a large crowd), it is time to tend to your own wounds and help others. Focus first on breathing, then on bleeding. Field-expedient bandages can be made from nearly any cloth material, so don’t be shy about that jacket that Aunt Sally bought you for your birthday. The more you can do for yourself and those around you, the more the medical technicians can focus on those with life-threatening issues beyond your control when they arrive several minutes later. If somebody is screaming, then their breathing would appear to be intact, so don’t neglect the silent folks that might actually be in greater danger.
For tertiary effects of a bombing, it’s best to consult your physician. Keep a good health insurance policy with a good deductible—this is your best method to restore your own body, as long as you keep good records that you were bombed.