Every day at auto dealerships around the country, service technicians dealing with the massive Takata airbag recall are taking pint-sized explosives into their hands.
Replacing the airbag inflators is delicate work. The canisters are filled with ammonium nitrate, the same chemical Timothy McVeigh used to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City. Workers must put each canister in a device vised onto a table that provides some protection in case of explosion. They need to make sure there's nothing loose within three feet of the back of the cage and two feet on the sides that could become a projectile.
And workers are reminded to keep touching metal objects nearby to make sure their static electricity is discharged. Again and again and again. Because an accident with the canisters could be fatal.
"My guys might feel differently, but it scares me to death," said Carroll Smith, owner of Monument Chevrolet in Pasadena, Texas, outside Houston. "I was in the Navy, and these [airbag units] remind me of a Claymore mine.
"If we were in the Army, my guys would be getting hazardous duty pay just to deal with these things."
That risk came into grim relief late last month when a truck carrying Takata airbag inflators and a cargo of ammonium nitrate crashed and exploded in a Texas border town, carving a hole into the roadway, incinerating a nearby house and killing the 69-year-old woman who lived inside. The truck was heading to a plant in Eagle Pass, Texas -- about 20 miles away -- according to Takata spokesman Jared Levy.
The explosion left a crater about 14 feet by 20 feet and threw a part of the truck's engine in the air "like a ball," Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber told Automotive News. "It was like a big bomb went off."
The accident is still under investigation by state and federal authorities, and the role of the ammonium nitrate in the explosion remains unclear.