Discovery of the Suspicious Storage Tank at the Kuwaiti Girls School: First Week of August 1991

The schools in Kuwait were the main focus of civil infrastructure repair. The schools had been closed for nearly a year and their reopening was considered an important indicator of a return to normality within the country.

In early August 1991, a British explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) firm known as Passive Barriers subcontracted by Brown & Root, an American firm carrying out reconstruction tasks on schools in Kuwait, discovered a suspicious metal storage tank alongside the perimeter wall of the Kuwaiti Girls’ School.[20] Both Passive Barriers and Brown & Root were unaware that in March this site was explored by coalition forces and that Iraqi military equipment, including the SILKWORM missiles, was taken away. According to the Brown & Root supervisor, the protocol for the reconstruction effort called for Passive Barriers to clear the area before Brown & Root commenced work. While clearing the area, Passive Barriers personnel discovered the tank and notified Brown & Root, which contacted KERO. The KERO safety officer was dispatched to inspect the tank.[21]

When interviewed, the safety officer stated that fumes were escaping from the tank through two holes, which had been caused by a single bullet. The bullet had broken in half on entry and was stuck in the exit hole. The safety officer stated that the rust-colored vapors puffing from the bullet holes in the tank smelled like acid. Based on the color of the fumes and their smell, he determined the contents to be nitric acid. Pinging the tank to check the fill level, he estimated that it was about one-third full. Despite not wearing protective gear and being close enough to identify the smell of the vapor, the safety officer exhibited no symptoms corresponding to chemical weapons exposure.[22] All subsequent contact with the vapor from the tank was by individuals who were wearing nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) Individual Protective Equipment (IPE) including respirators, and thus were not able to identify the smell of the vapor.

Figure 7.

Figure 8.
Photographs of the storage tank at the Kuwaiti Girls’ School taken by the safety officer.[23] Encircled areas show the movement of the fumes out of the bullet hole.

The safety officer took several pictures of the area, including two of the tank. These photographs were handed over to the DRAO operations officer. (Figures 7 and 8). The safety officer informed the operations officer that, based on the smell and color of the fumes, he believed the tank contained nitric acid. The safety officer never documented of his inspection of the tank.[24] According to a military policeman[25] involved in DRAO’s weekly situation reports, the storage was thought to contain fuel, however, not wanting to take any unnecessary risks, the operations officer ordered the contents to be tested.[26]According to Major General Patrick Kelly, who was in command of DRAO, they contacted someone in Saudi Arabia to inspect the tank and asked the Kuwaiti Army Chief of Staff to secure the area.[27] Rather than pass his assessment on to those testing the tank, the safety officer was instructed to deal with the DRAO’s operations officer.[28]

DRAO informed Colonel John Macel, who was the US Army Liaison Officer Kuwait, about the tank. Colonel Macel indicated that he visited the site and sealed off the area, pending a determination of a course of action. Military police from DRAO and personnel from Task Force Victory were summoned to seal off the area.[29] However, the area was not sealed nor were any US or Kuwaiti military personnel present when Major Watkinson, the commanding officer of 21St EOD Squadron, British Royal Engineers, conducted his initial reconnaissance and testing of the tank (see below).

Nature of Operations at the Tank at Kuwaiti Girls’ School in August 1991

Concern over the contents of the tank coupled with the overlap in jurisdiction at the national and organizational level resulted in four separate operations being conducted at the tank: 1) Major Watkinson’s testing, 2) the Fox vehicle testing, 3) sampling of the tank, and 4) permanent sealing of the tank. These operations were not necessarily conducted by the same individuals and these individuals were not always aware of the other operations. This meant that some individuals ended their involvement with limited information and unanswered questions about the nature of the tank’s contents. For a brief listing of the major individuals and organizations involved in the testing of the tank’s contents see TAB E. For graphical representations of the involvement of the key individuals and organizations, see TABs F and G.

Testing of the Tank’s Contents - Initial Activity

As stated above, post-war efforts to clear unexploded ordnance were conducted simultaneously with efforts to carry out physical repairs to essential infrastructure in Kuwait. However, the sectors delineated for ordnance clearing did not correspond to the boundaries used for reconstruction efforts. Thus, the school, while in the US sector for reconstruction, was in the British sector for ordnance clearing.

Major Watkinson first became aware of the tank at the Kuwaiti Girls’ School on the morning of August 5, 1991 during one of the regular meetings held between the Kuwaiti MOD and various EOD agencies involved in the reconstruction of Kuwait. Kuwaiti military officers specifically tasked a British company, Royal Ordnance, to investigate the tank. 21st EOD Squadron was one of the British military units on loan to this company to conduct EOD operations. As Major Watkinson was present at the meeting, the task was immediately referred to him.

Regarding the British EOD tasking, Major Watkinson stated:

"I attended a meeting on the 5th of August [1991] with the Kuwaiti Ministry of Defense which was a regular meeting, between Kuwaiti Army Officers and various agencies in Kuwait, who were involved in EOD operations. It was at that meeting that I first became aware of the container, because one of the Kuwaiti officers specifically asked Royal Ordnance if they could investigate it. A member of the Royal Ordnance Management Team was at that meeting and they immediately referred the problem to me, to investigate, which I subsequently did. Royal Ordnance was a UK firm which effectively subcontracted [with] the UK Ministry of Defence to have British military forces in theater assist with the clearance."[30]

The commanding officer of the US 146th EOD Detachment indicated that he was first informed about the tank by a Brigadier General in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.[31] At the same time, the senior EOD officer in theater was ordered by Major General Kelly from the Defense Reconstruction Assistance Office to examine the tank.[32] The senior EOD officer directed the commander of the 146th EOD detachment to examine the tank and search the site for additional tanks and other suspicious items.[33]

According to the commander of the 146th EOD detachment, on August 5, 1991, he and Major Watkinson, who was the commanding officer of 21st EOD Squadron, British Royal Engineers, examined the tank.[34] However, Major Watkinson has no recollection of any US personnel being present during the first operation, nor is their presence recorded in his post-operation report.

The First Operation - The Initial Testing of the Tank’s Contents

After some initial confusion in locating the school, Major Watkinson accompanied by his bomb disposal engineer found a metal storage tank with a capacity of approximately 2000 liters outside the perimeter walls of the Kuwaiti Girls’ School.[35] The school was not in use, but the school security officer was present. Also in the area was a British EOD subcontractor employed by an American firm to clear explosive ordnance and rubbish.

Wearing full IPE, which consisted of the British Mk IV NBC suit and S10 respirator, Major Watkinson approached the tank. Following standard practice, where minimum numbers of personnel necessary go forward, the bomb disposal engineer remained at a safe distance in radio contact. Major Watkinson then tested the tank with a chemical agent monitor (CAM) (Figure 9), British one-color detector paper (Figure 10), and an M18A2 kit (Figure 11).[36] A chemical agent monitor is a portable, hand-held instrument used to monitor the presence of nerve or blister agents. It operates by drawing air into the unit, which is ionized by a weak radioactive source. The level of toxic hazard is assessed by an on-board micro computer and indicated by a liquid crystal display.[37] The M18A2 kit is a portable, expendable item capable of surface and vapor analyses. The presence of chemical agent is indicated by distinctive color changes.[38]

The vapor escaping from the tank through the bullet hole tested positive on the chemical agent monitor, giving a reading of eight bars for mustard agent,[39] which is the highest possible reading. Next, Major Watkinson tested the vapor using one-color detector paper. This gave no response, which was not surprising as the paper is a liquid detector paper and is not designed to react to vapor. Recognizing this, he then conducted a further test using liquid extracted from the tank by dipping a piece of wire into the tank through one of the bullet holes. He wiped the wire on the one-color detector paper, which caused it to turn brown. This is a negative result for UK one-color detector paper, which turns blue in the presence of chemical warfare agent. He then wiped some of the tank’s contents on to the US three-color detector paper from the M18A2 kit.[40] The three-color paper, however, turned pink, which Major Watkinson took to indicate that chemical warfare agent might be present.[41] Three-color paper is designed to turn red in the presence of blister agent (it turns yellow in the presence of G-series nerve agent, and green in the presence of V-series nerve agent).

Figure 9. Chemical Agent Monitor[42]


Figure 10. British one-color detector paper[43]

Major Watkinson followed up the CAM and detector papers tests with an M18A2 kit. Regarding that test, he stated:

"The M18A2 kit has glass tubes that contain, sort of the cotton wool type substance, which is impregnated with certain chemicals. Obviously there are a whole series of different tubes which are designed to detect for different agents. One can go through those tubes in sequence, in order to eliminate various chemicals and decide what it is you've got. I didn't go through that process fully, because I'd got a reading with the CAM [chemical agent monitor] and therefore I narrowed straight in on the H [mustard] agent."[44]

Major Watkinson tested the vapor six times with the M18A2 kit by sucking the vapor through glass tubes using a rubber bulb. Major Watkinson stated that to test positive for mustard agent, the tube would have to turn blue; and as some of them did not, he ended up testing it six times.[45] Four of the tubes turned blue, indicating mustard agent. The remaining two tubes turned yellow, but then turned blue some hours later.[46]

Figure 11. M18A2 chemical agent detector kit[47]

Major Watkinson, like all others involved in the August 1991 testing of the tank, was unaware the school had been used as a SILKWORM facility, and thus that the tank may have contained IRFNA. Additionally Major Watkinson, like all others involved in the testing, was unaware that IRFNA would cause the CAM to register a false positive for blister agent. A US Army message dated February 19, 1991, indicated "fuming nitric acid will drive the CAM [chemical agent monitor] to 8 bars on the mustard scale."[48] This message was based on experience using CAMs with residual IRFNA from a SCUD that impacted at Hafir Al Batin. The US Army VII Corps chemical officer forwarded this information to all units via e-mail and recommended using the M256 kit if the CAM gives a positive reading of 8 bars on mustard agent.[49] Neither Major Watkinson nor any other units involved in testing the tank at the Kuwaiti Girls’ School was ever informed of this message. It is important to note the message was disseminated in February 1991, but Major Watkinson and 21st EOD Squadron did not arrive in theater until May 1991. Likewise, none of the US units that would subsequently become involved in the testing of the tank were in theater in February 1991, nor were any informed of the message.

During the testing Major Watkinson inadvertently came into contact with the tank’s contents. He stated,

"There was some of the liquid on the wire, which I then wiped onto the detector paper. I can only assume that in the process of doing that, I got some of the liquid onto the back of my thigh, and it went through [penetrated] my suit."[50] (Figure 12)

"It wasn't something that I was immediately aware of. In fact, it wasn't until I got back to the camp that evening that I noticed I'd been burnt. But it wasn't particularly painful, it was more a question of being uncomfortable."

He noted that it was just a red mark approximately 4 cm x 2.5 cm[51] , and did not blister at all.[52] He sought medical attention for the injury on August 9, 1991, four days after he sustained the injury. According to the medical report, the burn did not blister but was slightly raised and very red. It responded well to treatment with sulphadiazine cream[53] and had completely healed within seven to 10 days.[54]

Major Watkinson further noted:

"The significance of the injury is... relevant, because I was dressed in all the full NBC (Nuclear, Biological & Chemical) protective equipment, and I at the time couldn't understand how I managed to get burned on a part of my body where there was no joint in the NBC clothing. The implication was that the chemical had gone through the NBC suit. This was a bit of a concern, because obviously our NBC suit was designed to protect us and clearly on this occasion it hadn't."[55]

Figure 12. British NBC suit[56]

Major Watkinson concluded the operation by sealing both bullet holes using an industrial silicone filler and plaster of Paris bandages. He checked the tank for leaks with a chemical agent monitor; none were found.[57]

According to Major Watkinson’s report dated August 7, 1991, the security officer employed at the school prior to the conflict, first noticed the container on March 20, 1991. At that time, the security officer believed the container to be leaking.[58]

Additionally, Major Watkinson stated that Kuwaiti Police reportedly attempted to take some samples to the Kuwait Oil Company for testing.[59] [60] He went on to describe efforts to confirm or deny this information stating:

"One of the considerations early on was to try and establish whether there were any results from the Kuwaiti Oil Company, because we weren't sure what the chemical contents of the tank were. Although some inquiries were made along those directions, they didn't come to anything. Things need to perhaps be put in perspective. Kuwait, in the aftermath of the war, was in a state of disorganization... So, we didn't really pursue it to any great extent."[61]

Efforts to confirm or deny whether the Kuwaiti Oil Company or any other Kuwaiti organization obtained and analyzed samples of the material in the tank continue.

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