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Assateague Seashore partially reopens after WWII ordnance is detonated

By Candy Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

8:36 PM EDT, June 25, 2013

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On a sizzling day, one of Maryland's premier summer getaways turned ghost town while an Army bomb squad exploded World War II-era munitions that had washed up at Assateague Island National Seashore.

After two muffled explosions late Tuesday morning, a portion of the park reopened, including the main drag, Bayberry Drive, but ocean access and parking were limited, said a park spokeswoman, Rachelle Daigneault.

"We are taking our time to make a complete assessment, but we're not anticipating any further issues," said Daigneault, who did not expect the public to cancel plans to visit the island for July 4.

Campers milled about and took refuge in the cool darkness of the visitor center movie theater as an ordnance disposal unit from Aberdeen Proving Grounds collected rusted relics — more than 100 pieces — piled them in a pit dug in the soft sand and covered it with blast mats.

Shortly before noon, calls of "Fire in the hole" rang out and a geyser of sand shot skyward.

The unexploded ordnance was discovered late Monday afternoon by visitors to North Ocean Beach. A park ranger identified the bomb and called the Ocean City bomb squad, Daigneault said.

Assateague Island served as a military test and practice site during World War II.

"The Ocean City bomb squad came to the park and did an assessment and found many more pieces than they were comfortable with. We closed the park out of an abundance of caution and at 1 a.m., we contacted the ordnance disposal unit at Aberdeen Proving Grounds," Daigneault said.

The bomb squad arrived at about 5 a.m. Tuesday and found more munitions, including shell casings and target materials, forcing the closure of even a larger section of the beach. Campers already checked in were allowed to stay at their campsites. Assateague State Park on the north end of the island, closest to Ocean City, was not affected.

A sign at the entrance Tuesday told beachgoers and campers that the national park was temporarily closed.

"I didn't think a lot about it. I certainly didn't think of ordnance washed up on shore," said Joseph Hamilton, a Baltimore resident who arrived with his wife and two daughters at 1:30 p.m. for two nights at an ocean-front campsite. "It was exciting, but it was a little bit of a panic after a 31/2-hour drive. Should we drive home? Find another place? Wait it out?"

The Hamiltons opted for the movie about the famous Assateague ponies. About halfway through came the announcement that the park — but not the beach — was reopening.

"There were cheers all around," Hamilton said.

Daigneault doesn't expect ordnance fears to keep people away from the national seashore this summer. She said all of the park's 148 campsites are booked for the July 4 holiday. The 312 camp sites at adjacent Assateague State Park remain booked for the holiday week, a spokeswoman said.

This isn't the first time munitions have been unearthed near Maryland recreation spots.

In January 2012, Newtowne Neck State Park in St. Mary's County was closed to allow the state fire marshal's office to clear World War II-era ordnance, including eight artillery rounds. It has not reopened.

Pooles Island, a 200-acre dot that is part of Aberdeen Proving Grounds, is a wildlife sanctuary but off-limits to humans because it was used for target practice for six decades. Deer hunters with access to Blossom Point Proving Grounds in Charles County are warned to stay within areas that have been swept for ordnance.

Assateague Island was used by Navy fliers from Chincoteague, Va., and Manteo, N.C., as a "rocket, bombing and strafing range," according to a 1994 report by the Army Corps of Engineers. After World War II, two bombing runs were established and "an ordnance burial site" was built on land that has since been reclaimed by the ocean.

As a result, munitions on the beach "is something we experience once a year or so, so it's not unusual," said Lt. Ed Schreier of the Worcester County sheriff's office.

Back at his oceanfront camp site, Hamilton was getting ready for a dinner of hot dogs and baked beans.

"Things are back to normal," he said. "But we'll always be able to remember the time the bombs washed ashore at Assateague."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com