20 Feb 2008

Civil War Relic Collector Killed While Disarming Shell

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Authorities remained on the scene Tuesday of a Chesterfield County neighborhood where munitions exploded and killed a homeowner who sold Civil War relics.

Chesterfield County Police said neighbors reported the explosion Monday afternoon after hearing the blast and then finding the victim fatally injured in his backyard near a detached garage.

Police identified the victim Tuesday as Samuel H. White, 53.

Authorities found other unexploded military ordnance at the house, and evacuated about two dozen homes nearby until authorities could determine the area was safe. Police spokeswoman Ann Reid said the evacuation would remain in effect indefinitely.

Tuesday afternoon, police continued to collect and detonate ordnance.

White ran a Web site called Sam White Relics. The site contains photos of various relics for sale, such as Civil War artillery shells, cannonballs, bullets and other artifacts.

White said on the site he “will disarm, clean, and preserve your Civil War period and earlier military ordinance” for about $35 a piece.

“I’ve done approx. 500 artillery projectiles and still have all my fingers (I must be doing something right, knock on wood)!” the site states.

Neighbor Brian Dunkerly told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that a chunk of the ordnance flew into the air and smashed through the front-porch roof of his home about one-quarter-mile away. The piece of metal — weighing close to 15 pounds — then shattered his glass front door, hit the interior wood floor and bounced to the ceiling before coming to rest in the center of his living room.

Fellow relic dealer Harry Ridgway writes:

An accident occurred while disarming a Civil War projectile, long time collector Sam White, Chesterfield Va was killed in the accident. This is a horrible tragedy, Sam White was one of the good guys in this business, and I am very much saddened by his loss. I offer my prayers and condolence.

Sam had years of experience disarming and restoring Civil War ordnance and was highly respected. I believe that he used good techniques, but obviously something failed with this accident. The complete details are not known at this point, but it appears that he must have been drilling a large shell outside his house and did not use his remote rig. The news media showed pictures of a large fragment, likely from a round ball 8 inches or larger.

Notwithstanding recent accidents, Civil War ordnance is not dangerous to handle or display and is desirable to collect. All shells in a personal collection should be disarmed to ultimately be considered safe, but mere displaying or handling Civil War ordnance is not inherently dangerous. The two events that can cause danger are extreme heat or mechanical stimulus.

The black powder used in Civil War ordnance needs heat in the region of 500 degrees F to ignite, so it takes extreme heat such as a burning building, a fire or some other extreme heat to ignite black powder.

Mechanical stimulus can be hazardous, such as attempting to smash a shell with a sledge hammer or shooting a shell with a high powered modern rifle or something of the like. Drilling a shell to remove or wet the powder is the preferred method to render a shell inert, but the drilling process can create hazard. Ironically, the safest thing to do with a Civil War shell is to simply leave it alone. However ultimately it is good practice to disarm a shell to render it inert. This is done by drilling a hole into the chamber and wetting and removing the powder inside. Once the powder inside the cavity is wet or removed, the shell is inert and represents no continuing danger.

The accident with Sam White apparently occurred while drilling, although this is not fully confirmed yet.


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