Mystery liquid has more pop than pow

By CHARLES RUNNELLS, [email protected]

The antique safe contained just two vials of clear liquid, but firefighters initially feared those tiny glass vials would pack a house-razing wallop.

Enough of a wallop, in fact, to explode and damage half a city block, sending shrapnel whizzing down Pompano Avenue and into nearby Pine Island Road, said Larry King, spokesman for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.

The mysterious liquid discovered inside a Lee County house Monday could have been anything: water, tear gas, even nitroglycerin.

It was the nitroglycerin possibility firefighters worried about the most.

So, just to be safe, the Southwest Florida Regional Bomb Squad decided to use plastic explosives and detonate the vials inside the thick metal-and-concrete safe and inside the house. The safe and the house were once owned by the late shrimper and marina owner Furman “Sonny” Griffin.

The neighborhood just east of Matlacha was evacuated and part of Pine Island Road closed off near the Pompano Avenue entrance.

An air horn sounded outside 11911 Pompano Ave. at about 3:50 p.m., and someone announced on a loudspeaker, “Fire in the hole.”

The countdown began: 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...

Then: Pop.

That’s all.

No smoke, no flames, not even a bang or a boom.

It sounded more like someone detonating a party balloon than two vials of nitro.

And that was OK with firefighters and bomb squad members.

It all but proved they hadn’t had nitro on their hands, after all. And it spared the house and others in the neighborhood from potentially costly damage.

“Had it been nitro, it probably would have leveled the house,” said bomb squad member Dana Fox.

In all likelihood, the clear liquid was tear gas, Fox said.

In some antique safes, tear gas was used to ward off burglars, he said. That was common about a century ago.

“That way, if someone was trying to break in or drill into the safe, they’d hit the vials and the gas would, hopefully, make them go away,” he said. “Back then, it was legal to do that. Today, it’s not.”

The tear gas theory was backed up by the itchiness and watery eyes some firefighters and bomb squad members felt after the detonation, Fox said.

Nitroglycerin is a chemical used in making dynamite and other explosives.

In crystallized form — such as the liquid in the vials — nitro is highly volatile and dangerous to move, King said.

The material found in the corroded glass vials, which were about 4 inches long and 3/4 inch in diameter and kept inside a metal drawer in the safe, will likely be sent to a Tallahassee lab to find out exactly what it was.

Emergency officials were called to the scene at 12:30 p.m. after Julie Griffin of Pompano Avenue discovered the vials inside her late father’s neighboring house. The safe contained some jewelry, old coins and other items, Fox said.

Before he died in November 2001, her father told her he owned some vials of nitroglycerin, King said.

She discovered the vials while cleaning out the safe Monday and remembered what he had said.

Julie Griffin declined to comment.

Neighbors described her late father, “Sonny” Griffin, as a likable man who loved tinkering with computers, TVs and other gadgets. He also owned the former Griffin Marina on Pine Island Road.