CLEVELAND — Inside a 3,500-degree furnace, it doesn’t take long for illegal drugs and other contraband to go up in smoke.
Four times a year, a special agency at the State Highway Patrol burns confiscated drugs and guns at different steel mills across Ohio. The loot is kept in a room in Columbus until criminal cases are resolved and the evidence is no longer needed.
Destroying the contraband ensures it won’t end up back on the streets or in schools, said Sgt. D.J. Smith a member of the patrol’s Special Response Team, which conducted its latest burn Thursday at the ArcelorMittal steel plant along the Cuyahoga River.
The troopers watched as 4,000 pounds of marijuana, cocaine and heroin and 59 guns burned up. The contraband was valued at $6 million.
Earlier that day, Capt. J.D. Brink, who leads the patrol’s crime lab, made final plans to move the drugs and guns 144 miles north from Columbus to Cleveland. For security reasons, only two troopers among six on the team knew the location for the burn.
The team traveled in two vans, escorting a 24-foot truck and a van filled with drugs. A Special Response Team leader also ordered team members to wear bulletproof vests and to prepare their assault rifles in case of a threat or emergency.
The convoy arrived at the plant two hours later, and mill officials gave troopers canvas smocks, hard helmets and safety glasses.
The plant doesn’t charge police agencies to destroy materials and considers it a public service, said security manager Thomas Krizman. He inspected the seized guns to make sure they were unloaded.
Troopers then moved the shipment near a 3,500-degree iron ladle, where they unloaded half of the truck as mill workers used a railroad tanker shaped like a torpedo to pour hundreds of tons of molten iron into the red-hot ladle.
When it was ready, troopers tossed the boxes into the raging inferno. The drugs incinerated on contact. The guns melted. Flames roared, and smoke spewed.
Later, troopers moved the rest of the shipment to another location in the plant.
A forklift hoisted pallets of drugs into a 40-foot-long scrap pan. A crane lifted the pan about 80 feet into the air to a basic-oxygen furnace capable of holding up to 272 tons of material.
The pan tilted. The crane’s cables screamed. The drugs and scrap steel fell into the pear-shaped vessel.
The drugs went up in smoke.