Woman mistakes WWII-era munition for precious stone on German beach

A woman in Germany has narrowly escaped injury after plucking a chunk of white phosphorus from a beach. Firefighters were called to the scene after the phosphorus ignited in her pocket, setting fire to her jacket.

German authorities alerted beach-goers to the importance of proper pebble-stowing techniques on Saturday after a woman accidentally pocketed a chunk of white phosphorus.

Environment | 15.01.2014

A 41-year-old found the piece nestled in wet sand while taking a stroll along the Elbe riverbank in the town of Wedel on Friday evening, police said in a statement.

Read more: Wartime ammunition still rotting in German waters

Mistaking the highly flammable substance for a piece of amber or other semi-precious stone, the woman placed the centimeter-long chunk in her pocket and moved on.

As the phosphorus dried, it came in contact with the air, igniting and setting fire to her jacket, authorities said. Other people nearby alerted the woman to the fact her jacket, which was lying beside her on a bench, was burning.

Although her jacket was severely damaged, the woman remained uninjured, the police statement said, adding that the material came from a World War II-era incendiary device.

Firefighters then scoured the beach looking for other phosphorus material, but could not find any other such "stones."

Read more: German authorities evacuate Regensburg prison over WWII bomb

White phosphorus burns at 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,372 degrees Fahrenheit) and creates a fire that cannot be extinguished with water.

Phosphorus fires can also produce severe second- and third-degree burns that typically require skin grafts.

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In their statement, German police advised other stone-gatherers to use special cans and containers to stow pebbles that they believe are amber.

Unexploded bombs left over from WWII are frequently uncovered in Germany, even 72 years after the end of the war. Phosphorus that washes up on German beaches can be frequently misidentified as amber.

Unexploded ordnance in Germany - a legacy of the Allied Forces

What is unexploded ordnance?

Unexploded ordnance (UXO or sometimes also abbreviated to UO), unexploded bombs (UXBs), or explosive remnants of war (ERW) are explosive weapons such as bombs, shells, grenades, land mines, naval mines and cluster munitions that did not explode when they were deployed. Unexploded ordnance still poses the risk of detonation, even decades after they were used or discarded.

Unexploded ordnance in Germany - a legacy of the Allied Forces

Why does Germany have a bomb problem?

Between 1940 and 1945, US and British forces dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on Europe. Half of those bombs targeted Germany. Experts estimate that close to a quarter of a million bombs did not explode due to technical faults. Thousands of these bombs are still hidden underground, sometimes a few meters down and sometimes just below the surface.

Unexploded ordnance in Germany - a legacy of the Allied Forces

How big is the issue?

The industrial Ruhr area and the Lower Rhine region were heavily bombed, as were the cities of Dresden, Hamburg and Hanover. So this is where most of the unexploded ordnance is found. Bombs are usually unearthed during construction work or are discovered during the examination of historical aerial images. Experts say it could still take decades to clear all of the remaining unexploded ordnance.

Unexploded ordnance in Germany - a legacy of the Allied Forces

What happens when an unexploded bomb is found?

When confronted with the discovery of an UXO, UO or a UXB, bomb disposal experts have to decide whether to defuse it or to carry out a controlled explosion. Many have lost their lives on the job. German authorities are under pressure to remove unexploded ordnance from populated areas. Experts argue that the bombs are becoming more dangerous as time goes by due to material fatigue.

Unexploded ordnance in Germany - a legacy of the Allied Forces

How many bomb disposal experts have died?

Eleven bomb technicians have been killed in Germany since 2000, including three who died in a single explosion while trying to defuse a 1,000-pound bomb on the site of a popular flea market in Göttingen in 2010.

Unexploded ordnance in Germany - a legacy of the Allied Forces

Which was the biggest evacuation?

A 1.8-ton bomb dropped by Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) was found in the city center of Augsburg on December 20, 2016. The find prompted a large-scale bomb disposal operation and consequently the evacuation of over 54,000 people on December 25. To date, this remains the biggest evacuation for the removal of World War II unexploded ordnance in Germany.

Unexploded ordnance in Germany - a legacy of the Allied Forces

What’s the latest?

Authorities conducted another big bomb disposal operation in May 2017, with 50,000 residents in the northwestern city of Hanover forced to evacuate their homes. Thirteen unexploded ordnances from the 1940s were removed. Hanover was a frequent target of Allied bombing in the latter years of the war. On October 9, 1943, some 261,000 bombs were dropped on the city.