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Scrapper injured by military ordnance
SUPERIOR VALLEY — April Hull will not go back to her small trailer in the desert north of Barstow. She’s too scared of what she might find after a military ordnance she was scrapping in the mobile home blew up and badly burned her.
It was the day before Easter, and Hull was about to start work. Living in a motor home in Superior Valley, Hull and her friend Mario Norman scrapped for a living. They cleared junk off a piece of property and salvaged what they could to take to a recycling yard in Barstow.
Norman had left for the day to drive 16 miles south to Barstow with a load of recyclables. Hull went about her work of collecting odds and ends for scrap. She picked up a small white cylinder they had found the day before. It had two wires sticking out of the top, she said, and was about the size of soda can.
“I thought maybe there was a motor in it, possibly some copper wire,” Hull said.
She took the device inside the motor home.
Their amenities were stark at Superior Valley. Besides government assistance, scrap metal was Hull’s sole source of income. Without running water or electricity, a length of copper wire or a sheet of aluminum helped pay for gasoline, propane and other essentials.
Hull and Norman moved up to Superior Valley, a desert area between the edges of Fort Irwin and the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, with permission from the man who then owned the property. The two stayed on the property and scrapped what they could.
A day they’ll never forget
To start scrapping the odd white tube, Hull grabbed a tool bag to find a screwdriver or something to pry the device open. She said she set the device on the bed in the back of the motor home.
“But before I could use anything, a flash went off,” she said. “It was like a bomb blew up.”
Hull does not remember much else about the explosion.
Neighbors in the area remember. Nathen Martindale, a Fullerton resident staying with his mother at the time, said Hull ran across the street to his mother’s home, screaming in pain and asking him to “just kill her.”
Martindale said he began dumping buckets of water on Hull, but she still screamed. Someone else at the house called 911. Martindale wrapped Hull in blanket, which he kept wet with a hose. Finally, she calmed down. When the paramedics arrived, they told Martindale he probably saved her life.
“It was day we’ll never forget,” Martindale said.
At this point, Norman had returned from Barstow and found Hull at the neighbor’s house. He said she kept repeating, “It was the white thing. It was the white thing.”
“The neighbor said there had been an explosion. She was bleeding, unclothed and screaming,” he said. “I’ve never been in a situation like that.”
Sgt. Manny Mendoza of the Barstow sheriff’s station responded to the call. There were burn marks on a blanket and on the walls, and blood had splattered on the walls, he said. However, the motor home was pretty well intact.
Paramedics transported Hull to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton. She suffered second- and third-degree burns on her right arm and the right side of her chest. She received treatment there for 12 days before being released.
Norman continued to scrap up at the property in order to make money for gas to see Hull in the hospital. One day, he noticed a device that looked similar to the one Hull had handled.
“I was walking right by it, and it caught my eye, but this one has stickers,” he said, “warning stickers.”
A dangerous device
Norman said he described the device to a friend with a military background and learned it could have been a Hoffman tank gunfire simulator device.
A United States Marine Corps training system handbook stated that “the device simulates, both visibly and audibly, the firing of a tank main gun ... Each simulator can be load with up to nine electrically ignited pyrotechnic charges.”
The handbook states Camp Pendleton, a nearby Marine Base, uses the Hoffman device.
John Wagstaffe, a spokesman for Fort Irwin, where the device is also used, said the device is mounted on the side of a tank and simulates the tank’s gunshot during training.
“It’s really more of a incendiary device. What we get out of it is a bang and a flash,” Wagstaffe said. “They’re dangerous enough that they need to be watched and handled properly.”
The device, Wagstaffe said, contains black powder, and if it ignited near a person inside a motor home, it would cause third-degree burns but would not cause much structural damage to the motor home.
Norman said the explosion separated walls inside the motor home and cannot believe more damage was not done.
“I know it had to have been a tremendous force. I’m surprised it didn’t break the windows out,” he said. “And we learned later that static electricity can set those things off, and it just so happens the sheets were flannel.”
Hull is recovering from her injuries. Scars mark her arms, and she said he chest is disfigured. But most of all, there is a mental pain and fear others might suffer her fate.
Few live in the area, Norman said, but on weekends and during holidays, the population swells with camping off-roaders, who could come across something similar to the device that put Hull in the hospital.
In May, two men died when an unidentified military ordnance exploded. Since then, sheriff’s deputies have cracked down on those possessing military munitions and seen an increase in the public’s willingness to report ordnances. The problem of dangerous munitions lying in the desert remains large. Large enough to keep Hull away.
“It scared me,” she said. “I don’t know how much more of that is out there. That place needs to be closed off.”