DUGWAY —Using phrases such as "administrative error," "a serious mishandling of our agents" and "unfortunate oversight," the U.S. Army Thursday said a 13-hour lockdown at Dugway Proving Ground was prompted by an internal error.
A mislabeled one milliliter vial of the nerve agent VX, or less than 1/4 teaspoon, that could not be found during a routine inventory check resulted in the base being locked down from approximately 5:25 p.m. Wednesday until 7 a.m. Thursday.
Dugway commander Col. William E. King IV told reporters Thursday the vial was not lost.
"It was just misplaced into a different container that was improperly marked," he said.
On Tuesday, a two-person team was conducting tests on the vial of VX. The remaining residue after the tests were completed was supposed to be put back into its original vault.
Instead, the VX was returned to a container with the wrong serial number. During a routine inventory check Wednesday, it could not be found.
King said he immediately ordered Dugway Proving Ground on lockdown, and no one on the base — Army personnel or civilians — could leave.
"I had to make sure there was no malicious intent to put it somewhere else so that later someone could steal it," he said.
The vial was found about 3 a.m. The lockdown continued, however, as the investigation into whether there was malicious intent was settled. It was determined that there was no malice.
"No one was ever in danger," the Army said in a statement.
A Dugway employee who asked not to be named said he and others he commutes with sat in their van for two hours before going back to their offices Wednesday night to wait out the lockdown. He worked in his office for a while. Food was brought in to the small diner about 11 p.m., but the line was so long he did not wait. "I had my jacket as a pillow and I just laid down on my office floor and tried to get some sleep."
A co-worker called him at 5 a.m. and asked if he wanted to ride out with another vanpool. "He said they had gotten word that people were being released." After two hours in line to leave the post, he found out from security guards that he and another person in the van were on a list for a second round of questioning because they had been in the chemical lab within the past month. "They took us back and the vanpool left without us." He wasn't on his way home, for real, until Friday at noon.
"In the future I'm going to bring some sort of foam pad just in case this happens again," he said.
Gov. Gary Herbert spoke with military officials Thursday morning. “Everything is OK. I don’t think there is any public safety hazard out there," he said during the taping of his monthly KUED news conference.
Herbert said he planned to speak further with the military about the incident, “about protocol and what we can do better and how it was handled. ... The main thing is that the public was safe and the lockdown was appropriate. The issue was resolved and life goes on, no problem."
King said although the missing VX was found, the issue is still under internal scrutiny and investigation, and the FBI is assisting. The error, he said, is being taken very seriously.
All operations involving the handling of chemical agents were put on hold until an internal review is completed to determine where the error occurred and how the Army can prevent the incident from being repeated.
"It reminds us what we do is a deadly business and we take it very seriously," he said. "The reality is what we deal with is very, very dangerous material."
VX is described as an odorless, tasteless oily liquid that evaporates slowly.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, "VX is the most potent of all nerve agents," but also "the least volatile of the nerve agents, which means that it is the slowest to evaporate from a liquid into a vapor."
King said GB was the deadliest agent. He said it would take several gallons of VX to cause any real harm in chemical warfare.
"It is possible that any visible VX liquid contact on the skin, unless washed off immediately, would be lethal," according to the CDC's website. "Mild or moderately exposed people usually recover completely. Severely exposed people are not likely to survive."
Dugway sits on 800,000 acres of Utah's west desert. It is a government-owned facility used by the U.S. Army Reserves and the U.S. National Guard for maneuver training. It is also a U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command center where tests are occasionally run on defenses against biological and chemical weaponry.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche