Sgt. Robert Whitley has helped defuse 100 or more active bombs in his 14 years on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s bomb squad.
But even he didn’t know what to expect when a report came in Sept. 12 of a suicidal patient at Carolinas Medical Center who had an unexploded improvised explosive device embedded in his neck.
Whitley, the squad’s commander and the first squad member to arrive in the operating room, knew only that he needed to act quickly to save the man’s life.
Without his helmet and 80-pound protective bomb squad suit on, Whitley spent 10 to 15 minutes using hospital forceps to remove the device. It turned out to be a 2 3/4-inch-long high-powered rifle round the man apparently shot into himself with a flare gun, Whitley said.
Even so, from X-rays he examined before removing the shell casing, powder remained in the rifle round, he said.
“There was a chance it could have ignited,” he said.
On Friday, Charlotte’s Hood Hargett Breakfast Club, a business development and networking group, recognized Whitley in front of his captain for his selfless act.
Whitley told the Observer later Friday that despite having defused so many bombs over the years with other members of the squad, he was nervous about this one. “That’s human nature,” he said.
Pipe bombs are the most common bombs the squad defuses, he said. “Last year, we had an artillery shell filled with black powder,” he said. But this one was unknown at first.
The man was flown from Catawba County, and by the time Whitley arrived, the emergency room had been evacuated.
Whitley was acutely aware of the device’s potential to explode.
“Of course you think about that,” Whitley said.
Whitley said he didn’t wear his bomb gear because it’s difficult to maneuver around in, and the area was also narrow.
“Ninety-five percent of our calls, you’ll wear your bomb suit or have a robot” sent in, he said.
He also didn’t have time because of the urgency in removing the device to save the man’s life, his superiors said in honoring Whitley with the CMPD Medal of Valor in November.
Whitley, 45, has been with CMPD for 20 years. He and his wife have two children, and his wife sometimes asks why he has to help defuse bombs as squad commander.
As of next Saturday, she won’t have to worry as much. That’s when Whitley will be promoted to lieutenant over a division, no longer defusing bombs.
Despite the tense moments, he said he did what he was trained to do.
“Sometimes you do things you’re supposed to do,” he said, “and I don’t know any other way to proceed.”