Special ATF crew assembled for convention

They're the guys you hope you never see. It's not that members of the National Response Team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms are not helpful, pleasant people. It's that they have one mission, and one only: to investigate the causes of fires and explosions so disastrous that neither the local fire department nor the closest ATF field office can cope. The team has been to abortion-clinic bombings in Alabama, a supermarket fire in Paraguay, and the smoldering Pentagon on 9/11. Now, for the first time since the initial terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, they're in New York -- waiting.
Frank Malter heads the special unit that ATF has assembled for the convention. A 30-year bureau veteran certified as an investigator for both bombings and arson, Malter has been to incidents all over the country, and beyond, including Colombia, Israel, and Suriname. Of Suriname, Malter admitted, "I didn't even know where it was. And it was the first bombing they ever had."

Based in North Carolina, Malter normally leads the team's southeastern regional sub-team. But rather than strip any part of the country of its response capability, the ATF has pulled arson investigators, bomb experts, chemists, and dog handlers from all over the country to form a special task force for the Republican National Convention.

"Before 9/11, we wouldn't be here for this type of event," said Malter. The team's normal mode is to be on the ground within 24 hours of an incident, with a dozen or so agents falling in on one of more than 30 specially equipped $300,000 trucks stationed at ATF offices around the country. Each vehicle is identical, so visiting investigators know exactly where every lab tool, gas mask, and shovel is stored. But since September 11, authorities want instant response at high-profile events.

Malter and his team were at the Pentagon by nightfall on 9/11. "People were driving -- obviously, there were no planes flying," Malter recalled. He worked on the scene for three weeks straight, along with about 50 other ATF investigators, on what he delicately calls "recovery and identification" -- meaning, of charred bodies.

Meanwhile in New York, the ATF field office had been housed in World Trade Center No. 6. "The north tower fell into our building first, then World Trade Center 7," remembered William McMahon, since promoted to special agent in charge of the New York division. "We were right outside when the first plane hit, a few blocks away when the second tower fell." Amazingly, every ATF agent got out alive -- and because the cause of the disaster was so obvious, the team's investigators were not called in.

Three years later, though, security planners wanted the investigators on standby, minutes away, just as they were for the Salt Lake City Olympics and the G-8 summit. The team was in town several days before the convention even started.

Malter, as a regional team leader, is one of just five people assigned full-time to the team. Everyone else is drawn from a pool of 145 ATF veterans with full-time field jobs who volunteer for the additional duty. In their idle hours on standby in New York, the volunteers can get paperwork done for their ongoing cases back home, Malter said, but they really can't go any further in those investigations.

Nobody's complaining about the lack of action, though. "The truck's parked, there," said information officer Joseph Green, laughing and pointing to a peaceful side street. "So that's a good sign."

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