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World War II-era safe opened

February 20, 2019

AMESBURY, Mass. (AP) — Barbara Lorenc was doing some banking in Newburyport when she got an unusual call from her son Friday afternoon.

“He said, ‘Mom, I think we have a little emergency back here,’” Lorenc said. “So I shot back over there and there were helicopters overhead.”

Lorenc and her son Ben Becker own Trades Mill Co-op on Chestnut Street and had been trying to figure out what to do with a World War II-era safe inside the former Biddle & Smart carriage factory they took over in May.

The green safe stands roughly 5 feet tall and is 4 feet wide. Lorenc reached out to “safe experts,” trying to find someone who could crack it open, but no one ever got back to her.

“You can’t exactly find ‘safecrackers’ in the phonebook,” she said Monday. “Where is the knowledge when you need it?”

With no outside help on the way, Becker — who also owns BLB Custom Building — got to work taking the safe apart piece by piece with his project manager, Tom O’Brien, and two other workers Friday afternoon.

“It weighs probably about a thousand pounds,” Becker said. “So we had it out back and wanted to dismantle the doors. We figured we’d break it down into pieces. When we opened one of the doors with a crowbar, this vial fell onto a shelf.”

The glass vial, about 10 inches long and full of an unknown green gas, did not break open, fortunately.

Although the safe’s origin is unknown, Lorenc and Becker believe it was used to store payroll decades ago and the vial was a defense mechanism to ward off thieves.

“The vial had lodged itself on a shelf, thankfully,” O’Brien said. “But we were among a small percentage of people who have been booby-trapped.”

Not sure what to do about the vial, Becker called the Amesbury Police Department. The next thing he and his workers knew, a Massachusetts State Police hazardous materials team was following members of the Police and Fire departments through the front door.

“There was a lot of commotion,” Becker said. “There were a lot of phone calls being made. Hazmat was dispatched, the bomb squad was dispatched. It was definitely a scene.”

Lorenc was in Newburyport at the time when she received the call from Becker and hurried back to Chestnut Street to find the area cordoned off by police and TV news choppers circling overhead.

“We were just trying to get (the safe) out of building and take it to a junkyard or somewhere,” Lorenc said.

The hazardous materials team determined the vial contained CS “tear” gas and it was taken away to be blown up in a safe location by the Massachusetts State Police Bomb Squad.

“Once we saw the vial was not opened, the atmosphere was pretty relaxed,” Becker said. “At that point, we knew there was no threat to anybody in the area.”

The vial was protecting what Becker called “old documents” in the safe — not hidden treasure.

State police took the vial away and the half-dismantled safe remains in the building.

“The immediate threat is gone,” Becker said. “I might have to pay to have the rest of it dismantled professionally, but we’ve never encountered anything like this.”

Lorenc was relieved to hear no one in the building was hurt and no one was ever in danger.

“This is not the manner in which I would chosen to have gotten rid of the safe,” Lorenc said. “But it was nice to have good people in charge. The Police and Fire departments were right on it.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2IpXVwF

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Information from: The Daily News of Newburyport (Mass.), http://www.newburyportnews.com