History reminds us: Tahoe not immune to attack
Editor’s note: Running a photo of the Harveys bombing in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks may offend some readers, but we have since learned that terrorists may have targeted Las Vegas and other symbols of American “decadence.” This story, originally written for our upcoming annual edition on local history, is a somber reminder the South Shore is not immune to attack.
The bomb was 1,000 pounds and most of its weight came from dynamite. It blew a $12 million hole in Harveys Resort Casino the afternoon of Aug. 27, 1980.
A casino security guard discovered the device at 5:40 a.m. behind a door that was glued shut.
The guard saw an envelope on top of two metal boxes. Casino security had recently attended a seminar on postal bombs, so initially he was more concerned with the envelope than the massive bomb beneath it.
A palm print collected by Tahoe-Douglas bomb technicians revealed that the guard had even leaned on the bomb while he examined the envelope. The bomb was designed with five trip mechanisms, including a trembler switch, which meant any motion would set off the bomb.
By 6:30 a.m., an anonymous telephone call to the casino made it clear the envelope did not hold a bomb but instead it contained a typed extortion letter demanding $3 million. At one point law enforcement agents attempted to deliver a small portion of the money to the extortionist, but the meeting never panned out.
Three men dressed in coveralls wheeled the bomb into the casino on a cart. Canvas cloth with an IBM logo cloaked the device while Willis Brown, then 52 years old, Terry Hall, 25, and John Birges Sr., 59, rolled it through a rear door, passed a desk clerk and entered an elevator.
The men had attempted to bring the bomb into the casino several weeks earlier but failed when an access ramp blocked the wheels on the device. But the builder of the bomb, Birges from Clovis, Calif., fixed that problem by unloading the explosives and welding improved wheels on the cart.
A couple of weeks later they brought the device back to South Shore in a van and spent a night at a motel. Their plans were temporarily foiled by the van’s dead battery. A jump-start from a tow truck allowed their second mission to Harveys to be a success.
Once the bomb was discovered, the resort was immediately evacuated and many guests had to leave their possessions behind. Four technicians on the Tahoe-Douglas Bomb Squad then began a 33-hour standoff with the bomb. They quickly discovered it could not be defused.
“We had to attack all five leads at the same time to render it safe and we couldn’t do it,” said Steve Kibbe, a retired bomb investigator for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department. “It was all elementary devices inside one device.”
After X-raying the bomb, the techs consulted a computer that told them their best bet was to use a linear-shape charge to disable the device. The computer suggested they split the device’s firing mechanisms from its dynamite by arming it with plastic explosives.
Once the all-clear signal went out, Tahoe-Douglas Bomb Squad Cmdr. Capt. Danny Danihel detonated the charge.
“It was obvious more than six pounds of C-4 went off,” Danihel said.
The explosion destroyed seven floors, two of them in the basement. Prior to detonation, bomb squad members used sledgehammers to destroy walls near the bomb in order to direct the explosion. Their plan worked. Most of the debris shot in the direction of the parking lot.
The force of the bomb was so great it traveled through the tunnel between Harrah’s and Harveys and shattered glass inside Harrah’s.
Birges was arrested a year later. At the time, his bomb was the largest device detonated in the United States. Birges, a native of Hungary, came to America with only $3 but made a fortune as a landscaper building golf courses.
From 1974 to 1980 he accrued an $800,000 debt gambling at Harveys. When he placed the bomb at the resort he owed $15,000. Birges was convicted after two of his sons and his girlfriend testified against him in court.
He died in prison at age of 74 from liver cancer.
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