Myth Busters busted?
But did they get it right?
It is nothing new for fans and critics of Discovery Channels, Mythbusters TV show, to post blogs, forums, and write letters disputing results and conclusions they make in their show. Indeed Jamie and Adam crack wise about it on many episodes. I certainly don’t want to get lumped into “that crowd,” of Mythbusters love/haters but, with a novel set to be released that includes a great amount of research in the quest for a high degree of technical accuracy, I find that it is suddenly in my best interest address a few issues I had with their “Safe Cracking,” episode. I do this less to knock the show down a peg and more to head off criticisms that might arise from Mythbusters fans who may read my upcoming book, “Boxman,” and then flood my blog with comments stating that “Jamie and Adam said that won’t work!”
Here is a clip from the episode in question. As you watch you will see that they test two different methods of cracking a safe. One is the use of a thermic lance, and the other is the use of filling a safe with water and detonating a small charge inside the safe. The overpressurized shockwave from the water blows the safe door off the safe. Watch the clip and see what you think.
So did the Mythbusters get it wrong? Technically no. Technically, they were busting a Movie Myth. More specifically, they were busting the way Nick Wells (played by Robert Dinero) opens the safe in the climactic scene of the movie “The Score.” Wells uses a miniature thermic lance to punch a hole in a safe. Then he fills the safe with water, inserts a small charge, and blows the door off the safe. The Mythbusters rated this “plausible.” They mention that the thermic lance will likely destroy any money in the safe and damage any jewelry. Then they point out that filling a safe with water is a lot harder that it would seem. Safe doors are not meant to be water tight after all.
So what is the issue here? To be blunt, who wants to win on a technicality? Think back to the “Hand of God” incident. England will always feel cheated and Argentina will never have bragging rights free and clear. The problem with the Mythbuster’s assessment is that not only are both methods plausible (thermic lance and filling a safe with water to blow off the door) but there are documented burglaries (including one of the most famous in history) in which each technique has been used. To my knowledge, what hasn’t happened in the real world is the combining of these two techniques in one incident. My thoughts are that the director of ”The Score,” Frank Oz, had heard of both techniques, couldn’t decide on which one would be more cinematic, and decided to combine the two for the final scene. I would say he made a perfectly understandable artistic choice. So while they technically were correct in their assessment of the movie, they short changed the merits of each technique. In truth, both techniques should have been confirmed because….there are historical heists in which each technique was used.
Let me start with the thermic lance. The thermic lance, also known as a “burning bar,” or a “packed lance,” is an Iron tube packed with several iron and magnesium rods. Oxygen is pumped through the tube and it produces an enormous amount of heat. The thermic lance won’t cut through a safe as fast as depicted in “The Score,” but it will cut through a safe faster than about any other cutting, drilling, or torching technique. The biggest issue the Mythbusters seemed to have was with the damage it would do to the items inside, specifically money. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you burn open a safe you will likely burn up any money inside. That said, who says that burglars are after cash? In fact, the Mythbusters failed to recreate the conditions inside the safe as depicted in “The Score.” In the movie, the jeweled scepter being stolen was inside a metal box that was inside a metal safety deposit style box that was inside the safe. The Mythbusters just threw their scepter in the safe without the added two layers of sheet metal protection. I think it is quite possible that had they protected their scepter mock-up as well as it was protected in the movie it may have fared much better.
Thermic lances, and torch work in general, isn’t used to steal cash for the most part. Judging it by how it destroys cash, the Mythbusters made a mistake of a poor assumption. The primary use of the thermic lance has been in diamond heists and vault heists. In the case of the former, diamonds won’t be damaged by the heat in the same way as cash, or even jewelry. A fairly accurate portrayal of a thermic lance in film would be from Michael Mann’s first film, “Thief.” In the case of the latter, vault heists, the heat is dissipated enough that it is somewhat of a non issue. Another accurate cinematic portrayal of a thermic lance can be found in the movie “The Bank Job,” which seems to do a fairly accurate recreation of the Baker Street Robbery.
The Baker Street Robbery illustrates my biggest issue with the plausible rating. How can you rate something “Plausable” that is historical fact? It is like saying, “It is plausible that the Germans could have built Jets as early as WWII.” What do you mean plausible? They DID build jets in WWII! Furthermore, it isn’t that difficult to find examples of heists that used thermic lances. You can read about some of the early examples at the Safeman.org site. If you are game to get into some even more detailed case studies check out the book, Locks, Safes and Security. It costs a pretty penny but it was well worth the investment for me when I began researching for “Boxman.” While I doubt most with a casual interest will get the chance to read this book, a $200.00 investment by the Discovery channel to properly research their topic should have been well within their budget, especially if they can afford to blow up a safe!
Blowing up a Safe!
In regards to using the water to blow the door off a safe, the Mythbusters went through an enormous amount of effort to seal the safe door so the water wouldn’t leak out. What they didn’t do was tip the safe on its back! My understanding of that particular technique is that it has been used after a safe is cut free from its bolts in the floor, if it is bolted at all, and tipped on its back. Any issues with a leaky door are solved with this simple technique. (See more about this technique in this episode of Masterminds) Another thing to consider, even if the safe isn’t tipped on its back, is that professional thieves have been sealing doors on safes for years in order to use liquid nitroglycerine, “Jam Shot.” So again, the plausible rating they offer only applies to the way the technique was depicted in the movie, “The Score,” and not in regards the the technique in it’s own right.
So my final analysis is that the Mythbusters episode on safe cracking is not busted. That said, they survive on a technicality. They survive because they were rating what they saw from the movie “The Score.” Unfortunately, the episode has taken off throughout the internet world and is now being cited elsewhere as evidence that these safe cracking techniques are questionable. Even the Wikipedia article on the thermic lance cites the episode of evidence that thermic lances are of little value in burglary. This is ironic since Wikipedia also has articles, including one I have cited, that discuss how a thermic lance was used in a heist. My final verdict is that the Safe Cracking episode of Mythbusters is confirmed but it should be considered the “Hand of God” episode because they survive on a technicality.