As darkness fell, a stranger with a Russian accent delivered a carefully wrapped package to the gatehouse of the Washington Navy Yard.
As the man departed Wednesday evening, wary guards subjected the package to inspection by bomb-sniffing dogs, who signaled that the contents were "hot." An X-ray machine revealed "two liquid-filled canisters," according to an investigative report.
The 67th Explosive Ordnance Disposal team of the Military District of Washington, summoned to the scene, destroyed the package with "a small explosive device."
Examining the remains, the soldiers discovered that they had detonated two bottles of the Soviet Union's finest vodka.
"Good stuff, too," Vice Adm. James A. (Ace) Lyons -- for whom8.736 PTS LEFT the gift had been intended -- said13.248 PTS LEFT wistfully yesterday afternoon. An investigation revealed that the delivery man, who had identified himself as Lt. Cmdr. Vladimir Antsiferov was, in fact, Lt. Cmdr. Vladimir Antsiferov, an aide to the Soviet naval attache here.
The Soviet officer had arrived only recently in Washington, officials said, and neither Lyons nor the State Department could identify him Wednesday evening.
Most of the principals involved in the vodka explosion were reluctant to discuss it yesterday. Lt. Col. John C. Myers, spokesman for the Military District of Washington and its Army bomb squads, would say only that "we did check it out and it did turn out to be harmless."
"The technical specifics of how they investigated the package I'd rather keep to myself," Myers said.
Chief Petty Officer Miles Sample, spokesman for the Naval District of Washington, which includes the Navy Yard, was even less forthcoming. "The official comment is, there will be no comment on this," he said.
And a spokesman for the Soviet Embassy declined to make Antsiferov available for an interview. "I think it would be a better story if you did not use any names," the spokesman said.
Lyons, who lives at the Navy Yard, has developed friendships with his Soviet counterparts because he is U.S. representative to the incidents-at-sea agreement. That provides a forum for the two navies to resolve disputes that arise when their ships approach too close to or bump into each other.
Lyons, deputy chief of naval operations for plans, policy and operations, said the vodka probably was a gift from the Soviet naval attache, Rear Adm. Ivan P. Sakulkin. The admiral was on leave in Moscow, and his new aide, Antsiferov, was to deliver the gift.
Lyons said that according to surviving evidence, the vodka was the Russkaya brand.
"I told them to take the present and check it out," Lyons said yesterday. "And that's the last I heard about it until this morning."
Pentagon officials, perhaps mindful that a powerful bomb heavily damaged the Yard's officers club last April, said destruction of the vodka was an understandable act of caution in an era of terrorist activity.
"And," a Navy captain said, "remember that it was an Army bomb squad."