Police Evacuate Apartment And Call In Bomb Squad Over A Car Part

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“This morning, we investigated a suspicious item that resembled a possible explosive device. Our bomb squad responded and safely removed the object,” writes the Salt Lake City Police Department, who had just evacuated part of an apartment building. The organization released an image of the “suspicious item” and, hilariously, it’s just a car part. Unsurprisingly, wrenchers on Twitter had a field day with this.

“The Salt Lake City Police Department is investigating a suspicious item that resembled a possible explosive device,” the Salt Lake City Police Department’s press release from yesterday begins. “This investigation started at 9:49 a.m. on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, when SLC911 received information about a possible explosive device in an apartment, located at 999 South Main Street. Officers responded, secured the scene, and evacuated parts of the apartment complex, including the center courtyard. The evacuations were done out of an abundance of caution.”

The release goes on to say that the “on-scene incident commander” asked for help from the department’s “Hazardous Devices Unit” which is “a member of Utah’s statewide Bomb Response Task Force and is accredited by the FBI.” The unit includes not just Salt Lake City Police Department members, but also support from “FBI-certified bomb technicians from the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Airport Division and the University of Utah Police Department.” The press release lists off some of the team’s capabilities just to show that these folks mean business:

Members of the squad are very experienced with live incidents and have extensive training in render-safe procedures, explosive destruction, blast mitigation, and post blast investigation. The Hazardous Devices Unit has full bomb and explosive recovery response capabilities, utilizing all the latest equipment and technology.

Wow, that all sounds pretty serious. This must be the most overqualified team of humans ever to have escorted a timing belt tensioner out of a building.

Screen Shot 2022 06 30 At 10.57.52 Am
Image: ECS Tuning

Oh yeah, that’s right — this grenade-looking device is nothing more than a spring-loaded belt tensioner/damper for a VW Passat, Audi A5, or Audi A6. Its job is to make sure the engine’s timing belt — which wraps around the crankshaft and camshaft sprockets to make sure the valves open at the right time relative to the pistons’ stroke (you want the valves open as each piston goes down during its intake stroke so you can pull in fuel/air, closed as the piston goes up during the compression stroke so you can seal the combustion chamber, open as the piston goes back up after the combustion stroke so it can shoot exhaust out, etc.) — is nice and taut.

Here’s a look at that timing belt tensioner/damper in-vehicle:

Screen Shot 2022 06 30 At 11.27.52 Am
Image: ECS Tuning

You can see how it pushes against a lever that’s part of a bracket to which the tensioner pulley is fastened. The tensioner helps to torque the bracket around the pivot bolt, forcing the pulley against the belt to keep the belt tight. The tensioner itself contains a piston that doesn’t just have a spring on its back side, but also oil; so the device isn’t just there to help keep belt tension, but to act as a hydraulic damper to keep that tension steady under loads/vibrations so the pulley doesn’t bounce around and throw the belt off.

This would be quite bad, as that belt flying off or even slipping could let the pistons rise at the wrong time, and if that “wrong time” happens to be when the valves are open: BANG, you’ve destroyed your engine. This has happened to our very own Jason Torchinsky not too long ago:


Rock Auto, your favorite site for dirt-cheap car parts, actually does a great job breaking down how a hydraulic belt tensioner works, and even includes a cutaway of the very “possible explosive device” that led Salt Lake City Police to call the bomb squad and evacuate an apartment building:

Screen Shot 2022 06 30 At 11.08.21 Am
Image: Rock Auto
Screen Shot 2022 06 30 At 11.08.41 Am
Image: Rock Auto

Because there’s a spring trying to force that piston out against a timing belt tensioner bracket/lever, the way you install these devices is you bolt them into place, then remove a pin (which does look like a grenade pin or a fire extinguisher pin), which allows the piston to apply pressure to the tensioner bracket. Here’s a look at a guy removing the pin from his timing chain tensioner (which is quite similar to a timing belt tensioner):

I called the Salt Lake City Police Department, and they told me they’d figured out that it is a timing chain tensioner (close enough). The department has been getting some hilariously snarky comments on Twitter about this, as you might imagine. Have a look:

It’s the tweet from “Localized datum structure enjoyer” that resonates with me the most:

Seriously, give that thing back to the poor renter. They’ve got the real grenade right there under the hood of their VW/Audi, and it could go off any second!

Update (June 30, 2022 6 P.M. ET): The Salt Lake City Police Department, whom I applaud for having taking precautions in this instance but whom I’ll also poke fun at because mistaking a timing belt tensioner for a bomb is still funny, sent me this statement unsolicited after I published the initial article:

We approach every suspicious package/device call with the highest regard for safety. We have to for the wellbeing of our officers and our community members, we never let our guard down in these situations even if the object may appear harmless. We know that any object: speakers, computers, cell phones, radios, etc. can be converted into an explosive device. Our officers are trained to never become complacent. In this situation, our officers correctly assessed the situation and acted properly. Based on the witness statements, the fact that no one at the location claimed ownership for the device and that it seemed highly out of place, it was appropriate to notify our bomb squad so the device could be identified, handled safely and then tested to confirm there was no threat.  We treated this situation with an abundance of caution and are proud of our officers who handled this situation with intentionality and care.

Thank you for your interest in this story.

Hat tip: Van Aston!


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83 Responses

  1. I’m always conflicted about this kinda thing.

    It’s good stuff when people are observant, vigilant, and contacted the proper authorities.

    But I have to wonder: was it really just sitting by itself on a table in front of a window? With no context-providing stuff nearby like a Haynes manual or a nut driver set? The PD pic seems to show it near car stuff.

    And given our entertainment- and infotainment-saturated lives where we probably see more weaponry onscreen than many people actually in the military do IRL, did the reporter (who I’m assuming acted in good faith) think this was what, a grenade from the future ala Tenet? Or maybe just a really well made and machined IED?

    1. My ’91 Audi Coupe Quattro had a similar part. It also failed spectacularly whilst I was driving on I-80 through Paterson, NJ. Thankfully, no shrapnel entered the cabin (/s), and I’m thankful it was a manual trans so I could still decelerate without a functional brake pedal.

  2. This reminds me of a traffic stop in about 1988.
    Cop pulls me over in my 1979 Dodge Diplomat (yes, he was in a Diplomat too). In the dash is my old Technics AM/FM cassette player with auto reverse, Dolby, and two backlight colors. In the trunk is the stock Mopar AM/FM hunk of crap that the car came with.
    He pulls it out of the trunk and immediately starts questioning me about where I stole it. I explained that it was the original unit, but he spun a tale that had me breaking into hundreds of cars and earning thousands of dollars in selling stolen head units. I again explained that it was the original, pointing to the Pentastar on the front and the label with “Chrysler Corporation” on the back. Nevertheless, he persisted.
    Eventually, his younger partner pulled him aside and said, “You’re making a fool of yourself”, and we were let go.

    1. I had a coworker who used to have an MR2, and recalled being pulled over in some really rural town in West Virginia once, because it seemed suspicious that someone her age would be driving “an expensive foreign car” from out of state. Wasn’t a racial thing, since she was white, could have certainly been a misogynistic thing though, or just total stupidity. Should point out, it was the 90s, and a first gen MR2, so it wasn’t even close to a new car at the time, either

    2. “I do not consent to a search.”

      Gotten me out of more than one intensely stupid situation. Never one where I was actually doing anything illegal, but a couple of ones where a cop wanted to go fishing for whatever he could find, on the basis that my passenger was brown I didn’t stop for a yellow light.

      1. Dude, it was 1988. I was 19. We had been out partying. My buddies almost certainly had something on them.
        My goal was to drive away unscathed, and that’s what happened.

  3. Without scale, my first glance made me think this was a suspension component… 8-9 inches long, 2-3 inches wide, etc… So I could see that. Nope, this is a tensioner that is basically the size of a M-80, which could take a finger off, but is unlikely to cause catastrophic damage to anything.

  4. Still doesn’t beat the Great Mooninite Invasion of 2007 for bomb squad cluelessness. I mean, I can’t *completely* blame them because once they’ve been called in they need to take things seriously and the consequences for getting it wrong could be catastrophic, but still. Mooninites.

    1. And when they looked like fools, they doubled down and called them hoax devices, rather than admitting they were called in to examine what were basically lite-brites.
      Would have been easier and less stupid to just announce what they were instead of pretending that Adult Swim was planting fake bombs.

  5. I’ve seen dumber. When I worked security, a counterpart at another facility had a response for a potential explosive. It was a piece of a urinal’s motion sensor for flushing. It was located on the floor near the urinal. it was clearly missing on that urinal. There was another urinal correctly assembled next to it.
    That said, at least the police didn’t go around advertising that one.

  6. I enjoy all the bon mots but let’s remember it was reported as a possible explosive device. They handled like a possible explosive device. Also there is such a thing as an IUD, Improvised Explosive Device. This item could in reality been converted ask a bomb tech from Afghanistan.

    1. I was just typing basically the same thing – I never know how to feel about stories like this. Easy to laugh in a case like this after the fact, but also still feel a twinge of “what if?”

      I wonder if any of the F&F crowd’s obligatory stainless steel fire extinguishers mounted in the cockpits of their Civics has ever caused a similar commotion? 😉

      1. I haven’t personally held this part, but being vaguely familiar with timing belt spaces I can’t imagine it’s very large – so it couldn’t hold too much explosive. It’s also apparently aluminum and I assume it would crack before too much pressure could build up inside.

        1. Have you ever seen a hand grenade? Smaller than a baseball powerful enough with shrapnel that it can kill a dozen people and has. And that’s with black powder. You use C4 you won’t bring down a building but will get it condemned. But not knowing anything about explosives feel free to keep commenting.

    2. Investigating an item reported as an IED, sure. Putting out a press release patting yourselves on the back for safely removing a “suspicious device” is the idiocy here. I’ve investigated a lot of stupid “suspicious devices,” and you don’t really want to advertise all the dumb things people call in as suspicious.

        1. There is literally a link to their self-congratulatory press release, which is likely what the media covered. Even if the media got wind of it before the press release, it didn’t need to talk up the removal of a car part from the premises.

          1. What 20/20 is what optometrist consider good vision. Saying hindsight is 20/20 means that sure after everything is over you can make a right decision. Please take the time to see if the water in your area contains high amounts of lead.

      1. Yeah, this is an incident where, after it’s over, everyone just mutually agrees to never speak of it again and forget about it, not brand it a great success and put out a press release with a photo for all the world to see.

      1. I am guessing you didn’t read the article where it stated it was reported as a possible explosive device?
        So you are all for ignoring the report and what it turns out it was explosive blame the cops for ignoring it?
        Hey we got Joe Biden on the Autopian ignorant and stupid.

  7. Was this inside someone’s apartment, left in a common area, laying on the ground next to a VW with the hood up and a box of tools? Did they take this right out of the guys greasy hands? SLCPD is a bit light on the details.

  8. I’m going to take the side of empathy here. I would not have been able to identify that object at all, and if I were trained in the field of IEDs and was responding to a reported IED you can bet I would have believed this to be an IED.

  9. From the illustration on the home page, my first thought was “hydraulic clutch slave cylinder”.
    I will say that I assumed it was an auto part, because it was here, … if I saw it laying on the street I’d still think auto part. But that’s just who I am!
    So, I guess my take is that I am surprised that no one took a closer look, remote camera?
    Also Seems like a good exercise for the explosive sniffing K9, maybe?
    Paranoia? Maybe? I understand that police have to be cautious, but this seems a bit much.
    But I’ll withhold judgement, not knowing the whole story.

  10. Having been very into VW/Audi in the 90’s and early 00’s, I looked at the photo and IMMEDIATELY was like ‘that’s a 1.8T timing belt tensioner.’ There should be a game show that’s like ‘Name This Part!’

  11. . . . which brings up the obvious topic for a reader-generated content article and source of a few thousand more clicks:

    “What’s the most bomb-like car part that YOU’ve ever owned?”

    C’mon, Autopian — Ja’nik might get to this one first & make a slide show out of it!

  12. While I agree entirely on this, I question: Why such rush to deal with it?

    Assuming this was sitting on a workbench as depicted, and not hidden or otherwise left in an a suspicious way in a public place, it is extremely unlikely it was about to explode right then and there.

    So couldn’t they have taken a little time to simply guard the place (and I mean one officer for maybe half a day, not the entire department and their countless vehicles carefully parked haphazardly in a way to inconvenience the most people possible), so they’d have time to locate the tenant of the apartment and ask what that doohickey was before raising full alarm?

    I find US police in general is way, way too to short of patience for pretty much everything they do. Slow down, give everyone time to calm down and think, and things generally go much better for everyone involved. While certainly not all of them, there’s just too many adrenaline cowboys with an attitude problem in uniform, in my opinion.

    Fortunately this time no-one got hurt and the public get to send some funny snarky tweets. Imagine if the poor guy had actually been in the apartment when the cavalry arrived with a mindset of charging a bomb factory?

  13. As funny as this is in hindsight, I find the people making fun on Twitter to be very ignorant. Congratulations, you can identify that specific part because you happen to know something related to it. But if you didn’t know that one thing you wouldn’t be able to pretend to be so witty and in touch with mechanics online. Pull something off an airplane, or some appliance inside a home, and they’d be just as ignorant as whoever called this in, and the bomb techs who didn’t immediately know it was some part off a VW engine.

    Suggesting that’s as obvious as a socket set or a garlic press is moronic. I don’t know the details of why it was called in, or where and how it was sitting, and honestly I don’t really care. Someone called in a bomb threat for whatever reason, without any malice, and the bomb squad showed up and did their job. Some people need to grow up and focus on their own lives a little more.

    1. A lot of assumptions there. You’re assuming somebody called in a bomb threat without malice. Or maybe it was the guy’s ex-girlfriend who figured that that pull ring would be enough and went ahead and called it in, maliciously. We just don’t know.

    2. This. The Twitter hot takes are the stupidest part of this whole story. It takes approximately zero imagination to see how someone might think this looks like a grenade.

      The correct response to this story is to have a hearty chuckle about a funny misunderstanding and move on with your life.

    3. I would like to agree, but this made it through the department and out through their twitter department before anyone in that chain had identified the item as a car part.

      I assume the Twitter person was not on-scene with the bomb squad – and also that the bomb squad were not the first officers to respond. That’s a lot of opportunities to catch this before broadcasting it to the world.

      1. Sure, but at what point in police and bomb defusal training does someone get trained to identify parts from cars? Again, I don’t know the details about this part, and don’t care to look them up, but these aren’t trained VW mechanics. I’d bet only 0.1% of people that have ever bought a VW know their car has that on it. The only way I’d be able to identify it is if it has a VW/Audi logo stamped on it, which it might, and sure maybe they should have looked closer if it does.

        But to give them the benefit of the doubt:
        It’s a metal cylinder, with a fuse looking thing on the end, and a ring that could be confused for a grenade ring. That’s a lot of explosive looking stuff. The mounting holes definitely make it look like some kind of machine component, but we’re all looking at this through car enthusiast coloured glasses. I can totally see why the average person wouldn’t catch those small clues.

        To be honest I do wonder what kind of situation would lead someone to assume anything is a bomb, I feel like that’s kind of paranoid, but I understand how that can happen outside of this echo chamber.

        1. A bomb tech is going to know that cast aluminum is not the ideal material for a casing and also that the volume of that ‘device’ is far too small to prompt an evacuation.

          If the apartment building were precariously balanced on a single 4×4 and this device were taped to it, an evacuation may still be a bit of an overreaction.

          Even then, don’t go out of your way to post the details of your failures on twitter with photographic evidence proving your lack of judgement.

  14. I wonder what’s come of the person who owns the suspect auto part? Were they arrested? Even questioned? A simple discussion would have cleared this up, especially if the owner could produce the receipt from O’Reilly’s for it.

      1. Perhaps the tensioner’s owner realized their skin tone is a shade darker than alabaster and figured paying $50 for another one is worth it against getting shot by the trigger-happy cop who “feared for his life”

    1. Came here for this. When I saw the headline, I immediately thought of the pyrotechnic seat belt pretensioners I found salvaging bits from an early 90s SAAB 9000.
      Cars have been full of explosive stuff since airbags were mandated. I was recently reminded of this while running down a voltage problem on my E39 wagon: Turns out there’s a “pyro-fuse” built into the positive battery cable.

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