Monday, December 27, 2004

Dynamite Discovery is One of Several in Bay Area

The discovery and ensuing detonation of seven canisters of dynamite near a hiking trail in Mill Valley was the talk of the town Sunday as puzzled investigators attempted to figure out how the explosives got there.

A hiker found the rusted green military-style ammunition boxes just before 1 p.m. Saturday about 30 or 40 feet off a trail near the end of Castle Rock Road in the wealthy, wooded enclave known as Homestead Valley.

Some 35 residents were evacuated before a bomb squad was called in to detonate the ordnance. Seven explosions, including three terrific blasts, shook the ground and were heard throughout Mill Valley, ending around 10:45 p.m. Saturday.

"It's very unpleasant to have something like that turn up in your neighborhood," said Al Weiss, who left his Castle Rock Road home with his wife about 3:30 p.m. and didn't return until 2 a.m. "I hope they got it all."

The possibility that more dynamite may be hidden in the woods was a concern expressed Sunday by several local residents, who also wondered how in the world the stuff got where it was.

Marin County Sheriff's Sgt. Mike Crain said nobody knows, at this point, how long the explosives have been there or who put them there.

It is the latest of several recent discoveries of ammunition in San Francisco and Marin.

In April, a woman walking her dog at Fort Funston in San Francisco discovered two unexploded mortar shells apparently left over from World War II. Bomb squads had to be called to a reservoir near Fairfax in November after a hiker found a World War II-era bazooka shell and brought it into a ranger station.

U.S. Park police say old ammunition and other military gear is often found near old gun batteries and forts along the coast. Fort Cronkhite, in the Marin Headlands, is one of those sites. There also used to be an Air Force base on top of Mount Tamalpais.

But none of those sites is particularly close to where the dynamite was found.

Crain said the explosives were partially buried in rusted drab green military-style metal ammo canisters.

"They were a little off the trail, and the hiker went up to look," Crain said. "He noticed it was in military-style paper with writing on it, so he called us."

The Sheriff's Department called in the UC Berkeley bomb squad, which found six other boxes of dynamite buried underneath the first one.

"The bomb squad determined it was TNT and it was too unstable to move, so they decided to detonate it where it was," said Crain, who estimated that more than 4 pounds of TNT were blown up. Two windows in at least one nearby home were blown out by the explosions, according to neighbors.

Nobody could tell how old the dynamite was, but Crain said the canisters looked like they had been buried for several years.

The uncertainty has led to widespread speculation.

"My guess is that it probably goes back to the radical times we had in the '70s," said Weiss, who has lived in his house since 1976 and remembers how hippies and radicals used to commune around the nearby Panoramic Highway. "It's an isolated, woodsy area. Maybe somebody buried it with the intent to use it later."

E-mail Peter Fimrite at pfimrite@sfchronicle.com.

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