Wild ponies were not the center of attention on Assateague Island this week when munitions specialists were called in Tuesday morning to detonate more than 100 World War II munitions.
Rachelle Daigneault, a spokesperson for Assateague Island National Seashore, said a visitor came across rusted debris and metal during a walk in the sand. Park Ranger Walt West then received a call that the visitor found unexploded artillery shells and other munitions on the beach.
“I asked what made him believe that’s what they were and he said some of the pieces had fins,” West said. “To me that was a pretty good indication that the items were unexploded ordnances.”
West said he had no doubt the items were World War II-era explosives and that he could see more pieces in the surf. He followed park protocol and called the Ocean City Bomb Squad.
“Upon discovery, the bomb squad decided it was outside their comfort zone in dealing with this type of thing,” Daigneault said.
Daigneault said the emergency ordnance disposal team from Aberdeen Proving Grounds arrived at the park around 5 a.m. Tuesday and portions of the park were closed at 9:30 a.m.
Areas close to the North Ocean Beach were evacuated but visitors in the campgrounds were allowed to stay. Other parts of the park outside of the blast zone were closed, while entrance to the park was closed temporarily because the park wanted to “act at an abundance of safety for visitors,” Daigneault said.
The first two blasts went off between 11 a.m. and noon.
“We would have detonated earlier, but working in the sand is not an easy place to do this sort of thing,” Daigneault said.
When more items were found, a third explosion took place between 5 and 6 p.m.
“This is when we determined the Army Corps of Engineers should probably come take a look around.”
Daigneault said The Corps is currently searching the area for more ordnance and that visitors are encouraged to “recognize, retreat and report.” She said the park is providing handouts so visitors can recognize rusted metal as a possible unexploded shell or bomb. They are asked to retreat from the item, not touch it and to report the item to park staff.
Assateague Island was used by the U.S. Navy as a rocket testing and training range for land-based aircraft from 1944-1947, according to the United States Army Corps of Engineers Web site. Seven rocket motors, six rockets and numerous ballistic tips have previously been found, according to the Web site.
Daigneault said it “doesn’t come as a great surprise” that a visitor found the items and that Assateague was not the only coastal area used by the military.
“In the past it has always been individual pieces that we’ve found, but nothing of this amount.” West said.
West said it was the high number of items that brought attention to the discovery.
Daigneault said the North Ocean Beach is still closed but parking and camping remain open. Visitors have access to the South Ocean Beach and the immediate beach at the North Ocean Beach parking lot. She said there is “still plenty of beach area to enjoy.”
For more information, call 410-641-1441 or the Assateague Island ranger station and campground office at 410-641-2918.