Pubdate: Sat, 28 May 2005
Source: Bristol Herald Courier (VA)
Copyright: 2005 Bristol Herald Courier
Author: Matthew Lakin


MARION - Town police Lt. Darrell Hayden thought he knew the

He spotted the cooler sitting on the porch of a house in the Atkins
community as he and other officers made a drug arrest.

"We didn't have any training at that time," he said. "I tried to be
safe. I stepped back and took my foot and opened it up."

A cloud of gas erupted in his face.

"I almost died," Hayden said. "I came to lying in my own vomit. And I
don't know how long I lay there."

That was about five years ago, when police, firefighters and rescue
workers around Southwest Virginia knew little about a drug called
methamphetamine and its dangers. They've learned quickly since then.

They had no choice.

"The seriousness and the danger level of this drug are just so far
above what we've dealt with in the past," Wythe County Chief Deputy
Doug King said. "There's not a wholesome ingredient in any of this
stuff. Some of these substances are so toxic, you don't even bring
them into the courtroom."

Investigators who search a lab in protective gear step in puddles that
melt their boots. Firefighters and rescue workers show up at a burning
house or trailer with no idea what might be inside.

State and national park rangers discover labs dumped in the woods.
Officers serving court papers and social services workers checking on
children sometimes walk in during a cook.

"One of the most dangerous things a law enforcement officer in this
area can do is walk into a cooking lab," Hayden said.

Two styles of meth-making appear the most often. The "red P" method
uses red phosphorus from matchbox strike plates to break down cold
pills and convert pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient, into meth.
Cooks heat the mixtures on stoves, over hot plates or in microwave

The "Nazi" method uses anhydrous ammonia, a chemical found in
refrigerants and commercial fertilizer, for the same purpose.

Nearly all the labs found in Southwest Virginia, where it's easier to
buy matches than anhydrous ammonia, tend to use the red phosphorus
method, authorities said. Either combination can be deadly.

"It's fire, it's explosives, it's chemical vapors," said Special Agent
Mike Baker of the Virginia State Police. "You don't see any really old
meth cookers. They're killing themselves and the people around them
with it."

Red phosphorus can degrade into white phosphorus, an explosive used in
military grenades that catches fire on contact with the air.

Cooks often smoke cigarettes while mixing such chemicals as acetone,
starter fluid and lantern fuel.

Authorities believe that's what happened earlier this year when a room
at the Budget Inn in the Seven Mile Ford community exploded in flames.
The fire gutted two rooms, damaged six others and did more than
$100,000 in damage.

Anhydrous ammonia becomes a gas when its temperature climbs above 28
degrees below zero. The gas catches fire easily and strips the
moisture from anything it touches, searing lungs and burning through

One gallon of anhydrous ammonia in liquid form can produce up to 600
gallons of vapors.

Cooks sometimes store it in propane tanks or even thermoses. Sometimes
the containers spring leaks and shoot around rooms like pinballs.

Federal agents and Russell County sheriff's deputies suffered burns
and breathing problems in 2002 when they caught a whiff of the gas
while raiding a lab in the Elk Garden community.

Other dangers lurk in the labs as well. Various recipes call for
ether, lantern fuel, iodine crystals, lithium batteries and
hydrochloric acid.

One gallon of ether can explode with the force of five sticks of

Lithium strips can catch fire from moisture in the air. Water just
makes the fire burn hotter.

Phosphine, a colorless gas sometimes produced during a red phosphorus
cook, kills in doses as small as 50 parts per million and in as little
time as 30 seconds. By the time an officer smells it, it's too late.

When authorities discover a lab, only officers with special training
go inside, dressed in astronaut-style hazardous materials suits with
oxygen tanks.

"We have to have at least four guys," said Sgt. Michael Conroy of the
State Police. "Two suit up to go in. Then you have to have two on
standby in case one goes down."

Police seize any finished drug, then call in a contractor to dispose
of the chemicals and toxic waste. Cleaning up a mobile meth lab from
the trunk of a car can cost more than $6,000.

So far, the region hasn't seen any deaths or serious injuries result
from a lab.

"We've been really lucky," said Baker, the State Police

Area agencies have begun offering training to help their workers
recognize the signs of a meth lab - the acrid smells of ammonia and
ether, the piles of matches and blister packs from boxes of cold tablets.

Some, such as the Washington County Sheriff's Office and the Virginia
Department of Emergency Management, visit churches and civic groups to
offer tips on spotting labs.

"We're just trying to show them things to look for," Washington County
Sheriff Fred Newman said.

Hayden, the police lieutenant, believes most officers today wouldn't
make the mistake he made.

"If you're not familiar with things, you get complacent," he said.
"That's what I did." 
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