Michael's Dispatches

The Art, Science, and Carpentry of Explosives


2011-08-17-083045-1000Blocks of M112 C-4 prepared for mission beside roll of M456 detonation cord and accessories.

29 August 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Task Force Spartan, 4-4Cav

There is much to know about explosives.  A wealth of art, science, and carpentry has developed around uncountable blasting concoctions.  Explosives range from highly sophisticated scientific “achievements,” such as neutron bombs, to crude mechanical devices that any teenager can build, such as the relatively harmless bottle bombs that undoubtedly are exploding in backyards and vacant lots around America today.  In Afghanistan, the principle enemy weapon is the IED: Improvised Explosive Device.  Just an hour ago, on 26 August, a bomb detonated nearby, hitting our Afghan Army allies.  The charge weighed perhaps 250lbs and was hidden in a culvert under a road that our Soldiers drive over routinely.  A command wire was attached, and when Afghan soldiers drove by, it was detonated.  Three men were wounded and a fourth was killed.  Earlier this week, US troops nearby suffered loss of limbs from similar bombs, and loss of American lives is on average a daily occurrence.

For many Americans, talking about IEDs is like talking about IUDs (Intrauterine Device).  Homemade explosives and sex education are off limits.  The discussions are taboo not for practical or security purposes, but because of sensibilities.  The arguments are nearly identical.  Yet if you Google “homemade explosives”, and follow the rabbit hole, it would take several years to learn it all.  The “IED cat” was running wild before computers were made.  Vietnam veterans experienced countless IEDs, and improvised bombs were around before the grandmother of any living person was born.  Interestingly, the troops I have been with in Iraq and Afghanistan nearly universally want this information disseminated, while many people far away from the jagged edge are afraid to discuss bombs.
2011-08-17-083045-1000The above two photos show a simple demolitions tool chest used by 4-4Cav Soldiers. The main ingredients are C-4 blocks, detonation cord, and accessories.

C-4 is plastic, moldable around targets, and cuttable like putty.  Its uses are countless.  Some formulas and placements require precision and detailed training.  Other times, C-4 is used as a sledgehammer, for blasting through walls, or cutting down trees, or blasting open safes to steal gold.  C-4 will work underwater without air, or during a dark Alaskan winter night, or at noon under the direct sun in a blazing Iraqi desert.  American military explosives should operate from -80º to +165º Fahrenheit.  C-4 and nearly all US military explosives can take abuse, whether thermally, kinetically, or just from sitting in a bunker for forty years, yet they reliably deliver the same punch so that constants in practical usage calculations do not vary.   For C-4, the magic ingredients for detonation are heat and shock.  When the reaction starts, decomposition occurs at nearly 27,000 feet per second.  That’s about 5 miles/second, roughly 10 times faster than an M-16 bullet, or 24 times the speed of sound at STP (Standard Temperature and Pressure). 

The detonation cord is equally impressive, and its uses are limited only by the agility of one’s imagination.  US military det-cord looks almost exactly like US military time fuse.  Time fuse contains a slow-burning powder, while det-cord contains a very powerful explosive brisant enough to detonate any common military charge.  Among other things, det-cord is commonly used to simultaneously explode separate charges of C4, TNT, or dynamite.

When C-4 gets shot, it splats, but doesn’t explode.  A machine-gun bullet will not cause detonation.  Thousands of bullets fly around here and Soldiers and their gear are shot regularly.  Nobody would want to stand next to someone who is carrying explosives if a random bullet would result in a smoking crater.  When C-4 catches fire, it just burns, which also is good because my tent has loads of C-4 and det-cord just steps away from my pillow.


Tape and det-cord are used to build a ladder charge before a dangerous mission.


Sympathetic detonation can occur when an explosion is sufficiently close to another charge that it causes a secondary detonation.  When two landmines are side-by-side, both can explode.  Sometimes this is undesired, but other times it’s part of the plan.  For instance, the enemy might double or triple stack anti-tank mines to destroy heavily armored vehicles.  Our aircraft sometimes bomb landing zones to disrupt or explode IEDs before helicopters land.  While clearing small footpaths, five strands of det-cord are sufficient to cause sympathetic detonations of most enemy IEDs, or at least to disrupt the firing mechanisms.  And so our people build ladder charges, so called because they look like ladders.


It takes two men about thirty minutes to make a ladder charge this size.


On the left is my tentmate Sergeant Edward Wooden, from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He has done 10 years in the Army as a “12B,” or combat engineer.  Sergeant Wooden spent six years in the National Guard and then went on active duty.  This is his fourth combat tour, the previous three were in Iraq.  Sergeant Wooden said his first tour saw a difficult fight in Ramadi 2005 – 2006, with the 876th Engineer Battalion in 28th Infantry Division.  His second tour was in Baghdad during 2006 – 2007, another rough time and place.  His third tour was in Babil from 2008 – 2009 with the 9th Engineer Battalion in the 172nd Infantry Brigade. He said this tour was easy because Iraq had transformed into a completely different country by 2009.  As for his current tour in Afghanistan, Sergeant Wooden says this is tougher than Baghdad, and just as tough as Ramadi, which is saying a lot.

The Soldier kneeling in the above photo is the boss for this seven-man “sapper” team.  (The term sapper refers—in numerous armies--to combat engineers.)  Sergeant First Class (SFC) James Smirl is from Ashgrove, Missouri.  SFC Smirl has spent 16 years in the Army as a combat engineer.  This is his second combat tour.  His first was during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003—which feels approximately a thousand years ago for people who keep coming back.  On that first tour, SFC Smirl was with the 14th Engineer Battalion, attached to the 4th Infantry Division (4th ID).  The 4th ID originally intended to invade Iraq through Turkey, but at the last minute Turkey changed its political mind about letting US Armed Forces use its air and land space.  So the 4th ID had to quickly sail their gear all the way around to Kuwait.  Days late and coming from the opposite direction they originally planned, the 4th ID pushed north into Iraq from Kuwait.  SFC Smirl ended up in Samara and spent April 2003 to April 2004 in the fight.  Back then, American vehicles had very little armor, and it was politically incorrect to dare question the wisdom of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, or say words like “hillbilly armor.”  During a mission, Smirl’s convoy unknowingly drove by a 155mm artillery warhead.  It exploded about halfway down the convoy and wounded a driver.  The gunner took shrapnel to the face, lost some fingers, and both legs below the knees.  Small-arms fire instantly erupted from a nearby fruit grove.  Smirl rendered first aid to the wounded gunner.  During the fight, Smirl saw an enemy fighter make a run.  Smirl shot and killed the man, and then he and another Soldier searched the body.  For his quick actions, SFC Smirl was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” (valor).  The gunner died on the helicopter.

I asked SFC Smirl how his team is faring here in Afghanistan.  Several have been lightly wounded but only one badly enough to go home.  Private First Class (PFC) Nick Ortlieb had been in Afghanistan for two weeks, on his first combat tour, when he stepped on an IED pressure plate.  A Soldier with a metal detector had just walked by the IED, picked up a faint signal and decided it was nothing.  Luckily for PFC Ortlieb, the Afghan IEDs are not reliably made.  The bomb he stepped on was in wet soil—the raining season was just ending—and it only partially detonated, making a compound fracture to Ortlieb’s ankle.  IEDs are strange like that.  Sometimes when an IED detonates, you end up spending the next few hours picking up body parts, and possibly hitting other IEDs in the process of MEDEVAC (medical evacuation).  Other times someone steps on an IED and survives to tell a Superman story--where he flies through the air or even does a somersault and lives without amputations.  But more often than not, legs, testicles and arms get removed.  For PFC Ortlieb, he had been in combat for only two weeks when he was injured. Others who have survived multiple tours without being hurt might be tempted to think that their high level of skill is what has kept them intact, but a huge factor is simply luck.


In the middle of the above photo is another tentmate, Sergeant Diego Murillo.  Sergeant Murillo was born in Costa Rica, but grew up Missoula, Montana.  Sergeant Murillo looks like he could bench-press a water buffalo.  He’s spent 5.5 years in the Army and is also a sapper, having done two tours in Iraq with 9th Engineers, including East Baghdad from 2006 to 2007, another tough time and place.  During 2008 to 2009, he was back in Diyala Province doing route clearance with 9th Engineers.  Now on his third combat tour, Sergeant Murillo is already becoming an old veteran, though his easygoing style does not hint at the dangerous path that led him here.


On the left is another of my tentmates, Specialist (SPC) Ian Stauffer, from York, Pennsylvania.  SPC Stauffer is 27 years old, and a sapper on his first combat tour.  He volunteered for Afghanistan.  SPC Stauffer explained that his paternal grandmother was a full-blooded Susquehanna Indian, while the other side of his family is Pennsylvania Dutch who have been in America for 300 years and fought in nearly all the wars, including the Civil War, World War I & II, Vietnam, and now here in Afghanistan.  Stauffer explained that his father’s side is Roman Catholic, his mother’s side United Church of Christ.  I mention this because SPC Stauffer was born in 1984 and became Muslim in about 1999.  I asked how in the world someone from his background up and became a Muslim.  SPC Stauffer explained that he’d always had a passion for religion, and after studying many of them he felt that Islam was right in his heart.  When he decided to join the US Army, SPC Stauffer said the recruiter advised him to keep quiet about his religion. After some time he didn’t feel right about hiding his beliefs and so he is now open about it.  This month is Ramadan, a time when Muslims around the world fast during daylight hours, and are supposed to concentrate on their faith more than everyday concerns.  SPC Stauffer is not fasting due to being in combat, which is said to be permissible if he makes up the time later.  Stauffer said his wife is from West Virginia and her sister’s husband is a Lutheran youth minister, so they have interesting family reunions and occasional awkward times when two prayers are said before meals.

Just two days before the mission we were preparing for, Sergeant Wooden and SPC Stauffer were in a MaxPro armored vehicle when it was hit with an 82mm recoilless rifle.  The 82s are impressive and can easily penetrate the armor and kill everyone in a vehicle, but fortunately the strike hit the trunk and the trunk standoff buffered the blast.  The 82s are leaving a lot of people with TBI—traumatic brain injury—or worse.  Severe TBI seems to lead to a life of confusion.  Personally, I don’t worry about the dying part, but it would be bad to get severe TBI and no longer be able write or make photographs.  In this case, Sergeant Wooden and SPC Stauffer were fine, The 82mm did not take them out, TBI or otherwise, and so they were still good-to -go on the air assault called Operation Pyrite Pike.

2011-08-19-023957-1000Sergeant Edward Wooden carrying ladder charge and other gear during the mission.

The sapper team prepped their explosives in another tent, and then packed the charges by their cots in our tent.  Operation Pyrite Pike would soon begin.  We loaded up the helicopters after midnight and flew into the heart of a Taliban stronghold.

As the mission unfolded and night turned to daytime, there were shootouts and other normal dramas.  On the second day, while Sergeant Wooden and Specialist Stauffer prepared to clear a path of bombs, there was an accident.  They were using an APOB (Anti Personnel Obstacle Breaching system), which consists of two 60-pound backpacks for a total of 120 pounds.  After assembly, the system consists of rocket that drags out a line of grenades to about 100 meters.  It falls to the ground, the grenades detonate—plenty loud—and clear a small path.  Sometimes you’ll hear a sympathetic detonation of an IED.

IR-Helicopter-2ccFinal1000Specialist Ian Stauffer (L) and Sergeant Edward Wooden (R) during Operation Pyrite Pike.

When Stauffer and Wooden, who had prepared the ladder charges in the previous images, tried to launch the latest APOB, matters did not go well.  Sergeant Wooden said to me, “The initiator pin broke off into my hand.”  After he pulled the pin, the rocket should have launched after a safety delay, giving them time to take cover.  Launch failed.  Sergeant Wooden should have waited 30 minutes, he said, but he faced a gambler’s dilemma.  There had been maybe twenty firefights since yesterday, and so waiting carried risks.  He waited about two minutes and moved forward to inspect the APOB.  He grabbed the APOB and the rocket launched, burning his hand.  If Sergeant Wooden had not been wearing gloves, his hand would have been fried.  The rocket glanced off Ian’s leg.  APOB rockets are very loud.  In the flame, noise and dust, Ian thought his leg was blown off.  A couple inches’ difference and at a minimum he would be missing part of his leg, or worse he would have been shot down range.  The rocket continued to climb and both men were still on their feet (despite Ian thinking his leg was gone), and they dived for cover just in time.  When these rockets land, they should explode after a delay, but both men said this one exploded on landing.  
Sergeant Wooden caught a slight frag but was fine.  From my position, it was just a very loud explosion but we had no idea of the close call until we walked over.  The men continued the mission, and much later that night the helicopters came back for us, and we flew back to base.

(Note: I’ve been told that some of these combat stories end abruptly, leaving readers hanging.  Combat always leaves you hanging because it never ends while you are here, or when you go home.  Combat tattoos itself on your brain.  The endings are not storybook.  Since the night we landed by helicopter on Operation Pyrite Pike, at least twelve Coalition troops have been killed in combat.  About 80 Coalition troops have died this month so far.  Hundreds of others have been wounded this August.  The enemy dies at a far greater rate.  Nothing ended here.  I just stopped writing.)

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leyla Najma · 10 years ago
    Really interesting read.There is an art to war and these men are proof of that.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ken · 10 years ago
    I spent a lot of time in a tent just like theirs, but mine was not so clean. Of course we had 2 guys sleeping in it.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dan C · 10 years ago
    I miss working with the Demo. I first saw an APOB device used while in New Zealand in the late 70's; Loved it!!

    Is the det cord ladder deployed in the same manner??
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nancy P. · 10 years ago
    Hi Michael:

    So thankful you are sharing the REAL stuff. I would be interested to understand better how these 'ladders' are used but maybe that has to be left out. These men are so absolutely courageous to work with these explosives and I pray for their safety. I also give you credit for keeping reality always forefront in your writings and photologs.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bill · 10 years ago
    Michael - great explanation and pics, as always.

    If you get a chance, stop by and see the SWO. He's one of my guys, is doing a hell of a job embedded with the team and may just be a good story for you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leanne Robertson · 10 years ago
    Thanks for showing what it's like for our sons and daughters serving there.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Vernon Clayson · 10 years ago
    Specialist Stauffer should do some research and get a DNA test before he claims descent from a Susquehanna grandmother. The last of the Susquehanna disappeared or were absorbed in the mid-1700s, long before his grandmother's time. It's doubtful there was even a tribe with that name, it's more likely they were part of the Iroquois confederacy and were called Susquehanna by the round eyes because they resided on the river of that name.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter · 10 years ago
    Michael, I am sure "For whom the Bell tolls" was written disjointedly in Hemingway's mind, before he was actually able to to sit down and comfortably flesh out his characters. Keep writing. Critics don't know the travail of writing.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    JPDenny · 10 years ago
    Specialist Stauffer may have unique knowledge of his own family that you do not. I live in Oklahoma where many people know that Native Americans were mis-titled by uncaring government clerks. In other words STFU.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Judy · 10 years ago
    Thank you, Michael, for bringing your stories and your compatriots to life for us. Your work is appreciated so very much.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    James · 10 years ago
    Being a Veteran of the Korean War, and also a former Combat Engineer, explosives can be very dangerous, especially when there is several soldiers involved.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John - Capt in ANG · 10 years ago
    [quote name="Ken"]I spent a lot of time in a tent just like theirs, but mine was not so clean. Of course we had 2 guys sleeping in it.[/quote]
    It's the same tent used everywhere, at least in Afghanistan, on US camps. I think their's is cleaner because I notice there's a tarp across the floor. Ours didn't have that so we had, "little furry visitors," and more dust too. The tents I believe are made by Alaskan Structures and generally stay very comfortable year around (e.g.-10 F up to around 110 F their air handlers do ok).

    Ours had 8 bunks, and the transient tents are a little more packed at 10 bunks (for 20 men total). 2 in that tent (unless you joined tw would suck, but you do what you gotta do. I lived in that tent for close a year.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    maddy · 10 years ago
    Michael, sounds like you are right inthe heart of the action, God's speed to you son! Thanks for the up close and personal post!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John - Capt in ANG · 10 years ago
    Just out of curiosity, since this sounds like a common thing, and they're spending a good amount of man-hours doing fabrication... Isn't there a way det cords can be manufactured and shipped in the ladder configuration? Maybe the logistics isn't practical, but it seems like the Sappers' time could be better spent elsewhere.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Stan Reck · 10 years ago
    VERY COOL! A great big shout out to Sergeant Murillo from Missoula MT!! Stay safe, come back to us in one piece!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Joe Lesue · 10 years ago
    What a surprise! Sgt. Smirl is a hometown boy and we are proud of him. He came to speak at our high school Veteran's Day assembly a few years ago. It was impressive. BTW, he still has his name on the school track & field records board.

    Michael, the next time you see him say hello.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert Brown · 10 years ago
    Awesome jounalism and photography. You should get a Pulitzer. Stay safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Vernon Clayson · 10 years ago
    You didn't read closely or you would have noticed the mention of the mid-1700s, perhaps you could explain how "uncaring government clerks" would come into this? I doubt very much he has "unique knowledge" as there are no Indian reservations in Pennsylvania and very few records of the Indians that lived there before the round eyes arrived. There are, however, any number of people claiming to have an Indian grandmother but few can offer proof. At his age his grandmother would have been born in the 20th century, if she is or was a Native American there would have to be about 11 or 12 unbroken generations behind her. No way, Sgt, Denny. I respect his service but not his conversion to Islam, his fellow soldiers and his superiors have enough to worry about without having to wonder WTF he has in mind. I'm guessing he would not be welcomed with open arms by the Islamists they are fighting.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert Brown · 10 years ago
    You deserve a Pulitzer!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dick James · 10 years ago
    Very interesting piece. As a former Special Forces Demolition Sergeant and member of Special Forces Association Chapter XXIII (San Fran CA) I was especially interested. I had to check on a TNT charge once. It had been timed (using time fuse), prepared, and placed by a trainee (officer) in an officer's demo class at Ft Bragg. As I approached the charge I smelled burning time fuse and dove for the ground as the charge detonated. I let the officer know what I thought of his timing calculations. I had waited the requisite "safe" time after no detonation. Another time, I was instructing Ethiopian soldiers during an MTT in Ethiopia. One of the soldiers got ahead of the instructions and lit his time fuse. I had to grab the burning time fuse and blasting cap from him and throw it as hard as I could. I wasn't quite quick enough. I got sprayed with pieces of blasting cap. That was too close! SLURP SENDS!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    TDG · 10 years ago
    [quote name="Vernon Clayson"]I respect his service but not his conversion to Islam, his fellow soldiers and his superiors have enough to worry about without having to wonder WTF he has in mind. I'm guessing he would not be welcomed with open arms by the Islamists they are fighting.[/quote]
    Well no shit, the people we are fighting are hiding behind a warped version of Islam, much like many so called Christians at home. I'd have no problem at all serving with SPC Stauffer.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Vernon Clayson · 10 years ago
    Don't be fooled by the politically correct notion that only the warped version of Islam is a problem. I'd remind you that highly educated professionals in the officer ranks had no problem serving with Major Nidal Hasan, you can't have missed that incident. I understand you can't paint all members of a religion with one brush but one man cannot serve two masters, will he, as President Obama said, "stand with the Muslims if things go bad". Personally I think converts are easily led individuals and possibly more likely to be radicals to prove themselves. I have no religious preference, perhaps if someone establishs a Church of Skeptics.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Violette · 10 years ago
    an explosive life ! ! Cannot imagine more dangerous ladders,gives me shivers up my spine.
    Good luck Michael and guys ! !
  • This commment is unpublished.
    SFC Smirl · 10 years ago
    SPC Stauffer's religion is not an issue to me. I have not servered with a better soldier than him.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jkm · 10 years ago
    For a person not having religious preference you sure have a lot of religious preference.

    After reading what these guys go through you have the stomach to question this guy? He is is serving his country and is putting his life on the line everyday and you bitch about his faith!
    Your comment is stupid and ignorant. :-x
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Flood back Home · 10 years ago
    I am very proud of you SFC Smirl. You have made and are doing a small town very proud. Excellent comment about SPC Stauffer. You would know him best.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    SGT Denny · 10 years ago
    Again I suppose all should bow down to your clearly superior knowledge of Sepcialist Stauffer, his family, the history of North America, it's Native peoples, and the recording of the Stauffer family history, not to to mention the state of Indian Reservations in the United States, I apologise, I am not worthy to question you. Again, STFU.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Craig Devonshire · 10 years ago
    I remember when CPL/SPC Smirl was one of my team leaders in an ACE squad. The last time I saw James was as he was getting ready for Drill Sgt school. Glad to see you well James.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Amer-I-Can · 10 years ago
    ESSAYONS my brothers, keep up the good work, we pull for you every day.

    Michael, thank you for keeping us informed while putting your own butt on the line to do so. That means the world to us.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Vernon Clayson · 10 years ago
    Don't get all noble on me with that life on the line every day business, I know it's dangerous work as I had 26 years in law enforcement and 4 years serving my country, there were times I had to be on my toes and I know of fear. His faith is fine if it gives him comfort but he's a recent convert so he has only learned what they want him to know.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Vernon Clayson · 10 years ago
    Is your religion or lack of religion an issue with him?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Vernon Clayson · 10 years ago
    No bow necessary, I don't know everything but I have a fair understanding about Native Americans from living on and around reservations. Stauffer's ancestors likely came with the surges of German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 1800s and early 1900s and Indians had scooted from Pennsylvania long before that. I've caused enough contention so I will close, Good luck to you and all of the young people over there, stay safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scotch7 · 10 years ago
    In the early days of the internet - before broadband and even before the web browser, there was a publication called "The Terrorist Cookbook" hosted on a bunch of university servers. It was collected by even the mildly paranoid against the day of the Dictator - domestic or invader.

    It was lenghty and full of exposition and formulas and cooking directions.

    It may or may not have been accurate. I never learned enough to know if it was a real textbook or something deliberately released to help the clueless win a Darwin award.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Kevin Stalker · 10 years ago
      Your not accurate. Your referring to "The Anarchist's Cookbook", and if you found it on the internet, then those were the days when it was intentionally wrong (and nothing would happen) or made for people who have no idea what they're doing when a Darwin Award.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kevin Stalker · 10 years ago
    Just now got to go through the old dispatches and found this one. I remember asking you do a piece on Combat Engineers before this embed- and I GREATLY appreciate it! I find it funny how things never change. SFC Smirl went into Iraq with an old unit of mine, the 14th Engineers ("Gong Mu Ro"). Sappers are still apparently the smallest numbered MOS in the Army. Keep up the good work!

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Heath · 9 years ago
    Thank you for showing how our U.S. Troops live. I am not comfortable with the idea of tents for our U.S. Troops. They should be sleeping in bulletproof stations with air conditioning. The U.S. Troops would not have to worry about arabic terrorists cutting their throats in the middle of the night also the cases of C-4's would be in storage. I don't care about the expenses involved as an American taxpaying citizen. The Pentagon should talk to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania about bulletproof sleeping quarters for our U.S. Troops. The priority and safety of our U.S. Troops comes first.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Randall · 3 years ago
    Hi: http://lksjflksdjf.net there are using Wordpress for your blog platform?
    I'm new to the blog world but I'm trying to get started and set up my own. Do
    you need any html coding knowledge to make your own blog?
    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

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