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Picric Acid Discovered In Mining Kits In Hazleton

December 3, 2018
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Picric Acid Discovered In Mining Kits In Hazleton

HAZLETON — Firefighters and police responded to two homes where owners discovered picric acid in old mining medical kits Friday morning.

Officials contacted state police bomb squad units from Hershey about a kit Thomas Shemansky had in his 448 Thirlwell Ave. home for the past 20 or 30 years.

Shemansky read about the discovery of the picric acid gauze in old medical kits in two other homes in a story in the Standard-Speaker, a Times-Shamrock newspaper, retrieved his kit and took it outside into the backyard before calling officials.

“I had it for years,” he said. “I played with it.”

He didn’t expect the emergency response that showed up at his home, he said. Fire and police vehicles clogged Thirlwell Avenue and the alley behind his home, as officials gathered in his backyard and garage to discuss options.

“I figured they’d take it and go,” Shemansky said.

Firefighters did not examine or handle the kit with the picric acid, because handling the vials in the kit could cause enough friction to set off the acid, if crystallized. A bucket covered the kit in the backyard until the bomb squad arrived to dispose of it.

“We do not want to open the bucket,” police Chief Jerry Speziale said. “Friction or heat could set it off.”

Deputy Fire Chief Shawn Jones notified Ed Harry, Hazleton Area School District police chief, about the incident, which was a few blocks from the Heights Terrace Elementary/Middle School. Firefighters discussed the possibility of evacuating the school or putting them on restricted movement, but decided to isolate only Shemansky’s home as they believed the acid was stable.

An hour later, at 11:16 a.m., firefighters were summoned to 672 Grant St., where homeowner Jerry Diehl also read about the discovery in other homes, and said to his wife, “I think we have one in the basement.”

The couple went downstairs, opened the small metal kit and found that it did have picric acid inside, he said.

“We opened it,” Diehl said. “We probably shouldn’t have.”

They called 911, and police and fire personnel showed up before they could leave the home, he said. Diehl, a retired city police officer, believes they found it while cleaning out a deceased uncle’s home.

“We figured it was an antique,” he said. “I forgot all about it until I read the paper.”

Firefighters had the Diehls leave their home until the bomb squad could remove the kit. They also evacuated the other side of the duplex, 670 Grant St., as a precaution. Police put up tape along the sidewalk in front of the home to keep people away.

“I have a feeling it’s going to be a long day with these,” said Speziale, who expected more people calling about finding the kits after the media attention.

Mayor Jeff Cusat, who went to both incidents, said people should call 911 if they find a kit with picric acid in their homes or garages.

Deputy Chief Brian Mandak explained picric acid bandages, which were used to treat burns, become dangerous when crystallized. Opening the container could be enough to set it off, as it’s shock-sensitive, he said.

“Will it level the block? No,” he said. “Will it kill you? Yes. Will it maim you? Yes.”

The explosive substance could also cause significant damage to a home, Mandak said. He said picric acid was used in hand grenades and was the equivalent of eight half-sticks of dynamite.

The homeowners in these cases thought the firefighters would be able to remove the medical kits and leave, Mandak said, but that’s not the case.

“We don’t have those protective suits the bomb squad has,” he said.

Both kits were taken to an area near City View Park at Arthur Gardner Highway and South Poplar Street by the bomb squad and safely detonated.

Contact the writer:

kmonitz@standardspeaker.com; 570-501-3589

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