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UPDATE | Dynamite scare near Lone Lake forces evacuation
Kristen Aley knows one thing for sure about the box she found in the woods on Wednesday.
“I knocked it open with a sledgehammer,” she said Thursday. “I’m glad I didn’t get the grinder out to get the lid off.”
Aley, her parents, her 4-year-old son and several neighbors within a half-mile radius were all breathing easier a day after a metal box she found wedged in a tree stump turned out to contain 20 pounds of deteriorating and unstable dynamite.
The discovery set off a sequence of events involving law enforcement and emergency medical personnel, a Navy bomb squad and an evacuation of nearby residents for several hours.
“They told me if it had been August, when it’s drier, I probably wouldn’t have made it out of the woods,” Aley said.
“When I was a kid, people’d tell me to watch out for old wells around here,” she added. “They never said anything about old explosives.”
Aley, 28, was out for her morning walk in the woods behind her parents’ house in the 4400 block of Lone Lake Road, when she spotted an old metal container stuck in the stump. She said she yanked on it a couple of times until it came free, then lugged it about 100 feet to her father’s workshop.
“It was heavy,” she said. “It didn’t have any words on it like ‘Danger’ or ‘Explosives.’”
Aley said the top of the old container was rusted shut, so she pried it open with the sledgehammer. Inside were about 40 sticks of dynamite she said resembled rolls of coins, and several blasting caps.
“My dad knew what they were right away,” Aley said.
She immediately called the ICOM dispatch line and was transferred to Lt. Evan Tingstad of the Island County Sheriff’s Office’s South Precinct.
Tingstad told her and her father to get back at least 300 feet from the box, and he alerted the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Detachment Northwest, stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s Seaplane Base, which dispatched a seven-member disposal team.
Tingstad said most of the dynamite sticks were wet, and much of their volatile nitroglycerine had separated from the other elements, and had leaked out and crystallized.
“When that happens, it becomes very unstable,” he said. “It was a very dangerous situation.”
About 1 p.m., occupants of about a dozen homes along Lone Lake Road, Parkwood Drive and Pleasant Place within a 1,000-foot radius of the dynamite were evacuated, and residents of another 20 or so homes within a half-mile were urged via reverse 911 calls to open doors and windows to minimize possible concussive damage in case of an explosion, Tingstad said.
Roads in the area were closed, and an engine company from Island County Fire District 3 stood by in case of fire or injury, he said.
The bomb squad decided against transporting the dynamite elsewhere because it was so unstable, and against exploding it onsite for fear of shrapnel, Aley said.
Her father, Bill Aley, dug a deep trench with his backhoe about 100 yards from the family home, and the container was gingerly placed in it. Then a flammable gel compound was used by the Navy team to burn the dynamite to impotency.
Evacuated residents began returning to their homes about 3 p.m., and the entire area was declared secure about 5 p.m., Tingstad said.
“It’s one of those situations that could’ve gone very badly, but didn’t,” he said. “It was textbook.”
Johnny and Rosalee Dingle, both 85, who live on Parkwood Drive, were among those told to evacuate.
“When they said we better get out, we were the first ones out,” Johnny Dingle said. “They told us to go to lunch, and we went to lunch.”
“We were just saying the day before that we were living in a nice, quiet neighborhood where nothing ever happens,” he added. “Then this happened. I couldn’t believe it.”
The Dingles were allowed back in their house about 3 p.m., and their lives were back to normal on Thursday.
“Things are nice and quiet now,” he said. “Just the way we like it. But that was a pretty exciting day.”
Tingstad said the dynamite was probably 40 or 50 years old, and may have been left over from when the area was blasted clear of trees and stumps back in the day.
He said such a find is rare but not unheard of on Whidbey Island; he said he knows of about three other incidents in the past 25 years.
Tingstad cautioned anyone making a similar discovery to leave it where it is and call 911.
Kristen Aley is grateful it was she who found the dynamite, and not her young son Ryelan.
“When I was his age, I would’ve played out there,” she said. “I would have opened it, given it a kick or something.”
“I’m happy it worked out the way it did,” she added. “It could have been a lot worse. It’s definitely a wake-up call.”
She said officials told her it’s unlikely that more old dynamite is laying in wait on her parents’ seven-acre property, which she has wandered over since she was 11 years old.
“I used to play in the same area,” she said. “I’m definitely going to keep my eyes open.”