On August 21, 2013, more than 1,400 Syrian civilians were killed when their president, Bashar al-Assad, carried out a chemical attack using the nerve agent sarin. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the horrific attack “the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988.”
In the aftermath of the attack, the international community, led by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations, moved quickly to broker a deal with Assad to eliminate its entire stockpile. This would require countries with a chemical weapon destruction facility to accept the deadly arsenal, and none were willing to do so.
That’s when an interagency team led by Tim Blades from the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland and Paul Gilmour from the U.S. Maritime Administration in Washington, D.C. stepped in to carry out a historic mission to destroy these dangerous weapons at sea—a first in the history of chemical demilitarization.
“Tim Blades, Paul Gilmour and their people made things happen,” said Jay Santee, former deputy director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. “They knew the risks and wrote the book on what needed to be done.”
Working around the clock, the team eliminated 600 metric tons of sarin nerve gas precursor and sulfur mustard blistering agent in 42 days without a spill or injury.
The process began in the summer of 2013 when Blades and his team completed the design and development of the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, a transportable neutralization technology that can convert chemical warfare material into compounds not usable as weapons, and meets the 99.9 percent destruction rate standard set by the Chemical Weapons Convention.
But even with the innovative technology, Blades and his team still needed a location where they could deploy this “giant Erector Set” to neutralize the chemicals. The only viable option was at sea, and the logical place to turn was the U.S. Maritime Administration.
Enter Paul Gilmour.
At the Maritime Administration, Gilmour managed the Ready Reserve Force, a group of 46 vessels on standby to rapidly respond to emergencies. Of these ships, the MV Cape Ray was one of the few that could fit two Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems.
Although tall enough, the Cape Ray had to be converted from a military transportation vessel to a chemical weapons destruction facility, which had never been done before.
In only a month and a half, during the coldest winter on record in Portsmouth, Va., Gilmour, along with colleagues Jeff McMahon and Richard Goldthwaite, worked with Blades and his team to retrofit the ship and install the systems to neutralize the chemical weapons. This included adding additional berthing, office and messaging facilities, a medical unit, a commercial-grade helicopter landing deck, reverse-osmosis water purification units and an environmental enclosure with carbon filtration and engineering controls.
“It was two disparate groups coming together to find a way to get this mission accomplished,” Blades said.
With ever-changing modifications, Gilmour and his team relied on good engineering practices to ensure that the weapons could be safely destroyed without injuries, leakage, contamination or impact on ship personnel and the environment.
“We were leaning pretty far forward, and there were a lot of naysayers and huge obstacles within the federal government that had to be overcome,” said Maritime Administrator Paul Jaenichen.
“Saying no was not an option even with so many unknowns. If I had not had this team, I would not have been as confident,” he said.
“I look at what was done and I marvel,” Santee added. “This was Apollo 13. There was no textbook or checklist. There were so many different ways it could have gone wrong, and it didn’t.”
In January 2014, Blades and his 60-person volunteer team of field operators, technicians and chemists set sail on the Cape Ray for a six-month mission that would involve loading and neutralizing the chemical weapons in international waters.
“This is dangerous and hard work, and Tim Blades and his team did it expertly. I sleep well knowing they are the guys that got called,” said Santee.
According to Gen. Paul Selva, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, all of the declared weapons in Syria were eliminated. “They rid the world of some pretty serious chemical weapons, which if they fell into the wrong hands would have been catastrophic,” Selva said.
Jaenichen said this historic mission represented “the whole of government enterprise.”
“At the end of the day, we are making the world a safer place. It’s success in every possible way,” he said.