BY MICHAEL P. REGAN, Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK (AP) -- The letters would appear mysteriously at homes and businesses in New York City's Italian neighborhoods in the early 1900s. They were known for their childlike sketches of a hand, a skull and crossbones and the telltale signature of "Da Mano Nero" -- which means "The Black Hand" in Italian.
If the letter's extortion demands weren't met, the next delivery was most likely a bomb.
The terror that resulted prompted New York police to assign Officer Giuseppe Petrosino, an Italian-American, to lead the country's first municipal bomb squad a century ago. NYPD Bomb Squad, which has evolved into a high-tech unit using remote-controlled robots and gadgets to defuse bombs, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this week. Ever cautious, the squad is not publicizing exactly where and when the party will occur.
These days, the men and dogs of the squad spend much of their time sweeping for explosives in places like the city's arenas and stadiums, the United Nations and anywhere large crowds or VIPs gather. In their downtime, they test each other's skills with homemade bomb detonators built from cell phones, pagers and other common gadgets favored by modern terrorists.
"We're always tinkering," said the squad's current commander, Lt. Mark Torre. "We tinker by making a device that we might likely encounter, and we tinker with tools and tricks to defeat them. Every tool that we currently use was somebody's tinkering idea back down the line."
The squad's rich history is evident everywhere in their small downtown Manhattan offices. Six pictures of squad members killed in the line of duty take up much of one wall, and various examples of old ordnance litter Torre's office. On one shelf, what looks like several sticks of dynamite and an antique clock sit in a box -- a reproduction of the 1939-1940 World's Fair bomb that killed two squad members as they tried to dismantle it.
It's a humble headquarters for a squad that is respected by bomb technicians around the world.
"The NYPD bombs squad leads, the rest of us follow," said Greg Baur, the retired leader of the Milwaukee bomb squad who is now chairman of the advisers committee of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators. "They are not only the best trained, but also the best equipped and the most courageous people I know."
It all started when Petrosino's "Italian Squad" went undercover to find who was behind the dozens of "Black Hand" bombings. They arrested many suspected members of the group over the next five years, but the bombings continued.
The trail took Petrosino to Italy in an undercover mission in 1909. But someone there didn't like where his investigation was headed and Petrosino returned from Italy in a coffin.
In the years that followed, the squad continued to go undercover, infiltrating groups of anarchists, and assorted "reds" and radicals suspected of bomb plots.
The city's history is punctuated by the bomb plots that weren't foiled -- most notably the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 that killed six and the Wall Street bombing of 1920 that killed more than three dozen.
But the list of casualties would be much longer if it weren't for some fearless work by the squad.
In 1914, its members trailed a group of anarchists for months, until a young squad officer followed two of them into St. Patrick's Cathedral one day. One of the anarchists pulled out a bomb and lit the fuse with his accomplice's cigar, as the faithful bowed their heads in prayer. The young officer sprung into action, snatching the bomb and snuffing out the fuse before the bomb could explode.
During World War I, the squad went undercover to nab German agents plotting to blow up U.S. munition ships headed to war.
Later they were kept busy with plots by pro- and anti-labor groups, by the "Mad Bomber" of the 1950s, and anti-war and right-wing radicals of the 1960s.
The 1980s were spent dealing with homemade grenades and pipe bombs made by drug dealers to kill rivals or to booby trap their drug labs.
Brian Murphy, a former squad member who is now director of security for John Jay College of Criminal Justice, recalls jittery days spent climbing through windows of booby trapped drug dens during the crack cocaine heydays of the 1980s.
"It's not so much bravery as it is they use their head quite a bit," said Murphy. "You look before you leap."
The terrorist attacks of 2001 put the team on high alert again, even as they mourned one of their own, Detective Claude "Danny" Richards, who was killed while responding to the World Trade Center attacks.
"He wasn't being a bomb guy that day, he was just being a regular cop trying to save people," recalled squad veteran Detective Jeffrey Oberdier, as he tended to a pot of chili for his colleagues one recent afternoon. "When he got down there he evaluated the scene, said 'OK, it's not a bomb. But let's help these people.' That's what he was doing."
Today, when the squad members aren't responding to the hundreds of reports of suspicious packages they get each year, they're studying bomb trends in terrorist hot spots and domestic incidents.
"There's nothing really that goes on in the bomb world that we don't find out about in short order," said Torre. "That's how we keep on our toes. If something happens in California, I'll know about it within minutes. I'll know exactly what it was and how it worked."
The squad members believe that even with all the bomb-sniffing dogs, robots and gadgets at their disposal, their research and tinkering -- combined with 100 years of lessons and protocol -- will be what save lives.
"There are certain environments that (robots) just will not function, whether it's due to space limitations, or physical hazards or terrain," said Torre. "A lot of these really big jobs usually come down to one guy in a bomb suit figuring out what it is and what he's going to do with it to make it go away."
Oberdier admits he still gets nervous when a call comes in -- he says there would have to be something wrong with him if he didn't.
"It's just like being a good electrician, or a good carpenter," he said. "If you know what you're doing, you're not going to get electrocuted or put a nail gun through your hand."
On the Net:
Bomb Squad Centennial: www.nypdbombsquadcentennial.com