ARCHAIC PROJECTILE: He just wanted to find out if it was volatile.
By MEGAN HOLLAND
Anchorage Daily News
(Published: September 5, 2005)
When he called police and the bomb squad showed up at his Anchorage home last week, Yale Metzger just wanted them to examine the cannonball he had picked up in Cordova. He didn't want them to bring out the remote-controlled robot, haul away the cast iron ball and blow it to smithereens.
But that's what they did.
Now Metzger is saying the Anchorage Police Department was looking for an excuse to dynamite something and that they owe him a cannonball.
The police are calling Metzger "an idiot" for carrying the incendiary device around in his truck, then bringing it into downtown Anchorage, where they say it could have sent shrapnel flying for blocks had it exploded.
Metzger, a 45-year-old Anchorage attorney, found the 4-inch, 8-pound, cast iron ball in downtown Cordova last summer while excavating property he had purchased. It was unearthed in what was most recently a snow dump.
Metzger put it in the back of his pickup, where it rolled around for a year, he said. Over time he began to investigate how a cannonball -- an archaic projectile that stopped being used more than a century ago -- could have ended up in Cordova at the southeastern end of Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska. One possibility he came up with was that it came from the ships of Russian or European commercial traders in the 18th century that were in the area looking for lucrative sea otter pelts.
State archaeologist Dave McMahan said other cannonballs have been found in Anchorage, Valdez and Sitka, adding that the Russians were pretty much all over Alaska during their occupation in the 1700s.
But "it is doubtful we will ever know where exactly it came from," he said of Metzger's find.
Linda Yarborough, archaeologist for the Chugach National Forest near Cordova, says round iron balls were used to crush ore in gold mine machines. Not having seen Metzger's, she can't say for sure, but her hunch is that it could have come from a mill at the historic McKinley Lake Mine east of Cordova that dates to the early 1900s.
"Unfortunately, not having it, it is really hard to look at a picture and figure out what it might have been," Yarborough said. Photos of the object are the only evidence Metzger now has of his souvenir.
Anchorage police, however, say a fuse hole in the device convinced them it was a cannonball, and the explosion when they destroyed it backs that position.
The experts say whichever possibility may be true, the ball was of historic value. And that is precisely what incenses Metzger.
Several weeks ago, he decided to bring his find to his Anchorage home on 11th Avenue. He got a friend to pack it with him on a state ferry. Metzger had heard of old cannonballs blowing up, but he chalked up those stories largely to urban myth or at least something that happens extremely rarely.
Still, once it was in Anchorage, Metzger was slightly concerned the ball could be still active and thought he would check it out. He wanted to know if his cannonball was solid or hollow, and if it was hollow, did it have volatile black powder?
He tried to get a friend at the airport's Transportation Security Administration to put it through one of the machines. That didn't work; it would have gotten his friend in trouble. He tried to get a friend at a medical office to X-ray it, but the machine was judged not powerful enough.
So he called the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They told him to call the Anchorage Police Department.
Police said they would take a look at it. Last Monday, the bomb squad took one look at it sitting in Metzger's garage and treated it like a bomb seconds away from blowing.
"Could it have exploded?" Metzger asked. "Sure. So could a meteor fall out of the sky and hit your truck."
The bomb squad vehicle contained a portable X-ray machine that could have determined if the cannonball was hollow, but that wasn't an option, said police Sgt. Ray Jennings, head of the bomb squad. The super-powerful rays to see through metal would have punched through Metzger's walls and his neighbors', exposing everyone to the harmful rays, he said.
Taking a look at it, the police knew by the fuse hole that it was potentially live, they said.
"A cannonball is nothing more than a large grenade," Jennings said. "It could have sent metal flying blocks."
Metzger wanted the squad to take the cannonball and X-ray it elsewhere, but deputy chief Audi Holloway said, defending the department's decision, that moving it just puts officers in unnecessary danger.
"You never know what point an explosive device is at," he said. "If it is anything that may have explosives in it, that may cause damage to a person or property, we have to assume it will explode. We have to destroy it."
The bomb squad exploded the cannonball at the Anchorage Landfill, said Lt. Paul Honeman, but police won't say how for security reasons. Sgt. Jeff Morton confirmed that a secondary explosion occurred and said a different color of smoke blurted out, making it certain that the cannonball had volatile black powder.
Did the police destroy a potentially important historical artifact?
"We're not going to put a bomb technician's life in jeopardy over a cannonball or anything else," Jennings said. He called Metzger "an idiot" for bringing the bomb into town and for questioning the bomb squad's decision to destroy it.
Now Metzger wants the police to buy him another cannonball on eBay.
"I was going to make a doorstop out of it. They owe me a cannonball."