PART 2: THE COMMERCIALIZATION OF EXPLOSIVE DEMOLITION

The 1950s:

Throughout the mid-1900s, American explosives-manufacturing companies gradually began to redefine the role of their field engineers from actual blasters to blast consultants. This created an opportunity for individuals from various explosives-using industries to begin forging a new sub-industry exclusively dedicated to structural demolition.

For example, in the late 1940s and early 50s:

  • Joseph McAlinden was blasting rock for road projects in New Jersey. (Joe and his brother, Merritt, would later found McAlinden Blasting)
  • David Evans was an explosives-disposal technician at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. (David would later found Precision Explosives)
  • Jack Loizeaux was blasting tree stumps for the U.S. Forestry Service in Georgia. (Jack would later found Controlled Demolition)
  • Alfred Kelly was working in the coal mines of Northern Pennsylvania. (Alfred's son, Eric, would later found Engineered Demolition)
  • Richard Gustafson worked for a construction contractor, blasting rock for building foundations and basements. (Richard would later help establish Rucker Explosive Demolition.)

During this same postwar period, several European firms began using explosives for commercial demolition purposes. An early documentary from the 1950s profiled "Mrs. Dynamite," a woman whose team was very successful in this field. In addition, many communist-bloc entities had become proficient at safely blasting structures, although this type of work was still largely controlled by the State. And it may reasonably be assumed that third-world nations such as China - the original inventors of black powder - were experimenting with various types of explosive demolition (although no specific examples turned up in this author's research).

Most budding American building demolitionists cut their teeth in the same manner as their explosives-company predecessors, namely by blasting geographically isolated structures such as bridges, transmission towers, smokestacks and silos. Slowly they gained the confidence of local municipalities to demolish small buildings. However, structural explosive-demolition in the '50s remained mostly a part-time occupation designed to supplement full-time blasting duties in other fields. As a result, according to interviews with several experts familiar with the industry at the time, only a few hundred American buildings had been felled with explosives by 1960.

The 1960's:

With few exceptions, explosive demolition in the early 1960s was concentrated in the industrial sector, and blasters worked primarily within a few-hundred mile radius of their respective offices. Many expanded their resumes' with power plants, warehouses, factories, coal tipples and blast furnaces, and with each new project they gained valuable experience. Gradually they began to develop techniques to increase the efficiency of explosive charges, such as pre-cutting steel beams and attaching cables to certain columns to "pull" a structure in a given direction.

It was also around this time that a new group of explosives research firms, led by Explosive Technology Corporation, began improving the efficiency of high-velocity chemical explosives by developing compounds such as cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine (or RDX for short).

These linear shaped charges proved so valuable for commercial purposes that sales to private blasting firms eventually exceeded those to the U.S. government, and RDX is still regarded as a state-of-the-art high explosive today.

Other developments included non-electric firing systems, which many regarded as safer and more reliable than electric systems, and the portable field seismograph, which allowed blasters to assure local officials that explosive demolition could consistently be performed within reasonable ground-vibration and air overpressure parameters.

More and more structures were felled with explosives, particularly near densely populated urban areas. Consequently, the events were starting to draw larger crowds. The industry was getting noticed.

The 1970s:

In the early 1970s, with these projects becoming more common, America's burgeoning TV-news industry began to capitalize on the strong visual appeal of "blasting down buildings." This increased visibility and a successful track record allowed blasting firms to introduce ever-larger projects into the crowded confines of urban settings.

Felling buildings within tighter boundaries meant addressing the corresponding increase in liability risks, and several companies began turning more attention towards adjacent structures. They augmented established protection methods with new ones, such as wrapping geotextile fabric around columns to be blasted, draping large tarpaulin and similar materials over neighboring walls, and placing large steel containers around the blast perimeter to deflect any escaping debris and absorb some of the airblast.

Most of these combinations proved very successful, and established the groundwork for additional projects. In Atlantic City alone, four large hotels (the Breakers, the Chalfont Haddon Hall, the Traymore and the St. Charles) were brought down by four different blasting firms, and other "skyscrapers" were successfully felled across the country.

The 1970s also brought a second generation of commercial explosive-demolition specialists:

  • Merritt McAlinden's son, Merritt Jr., began to consistently bring down structures on his own, as did Jack Loizeaux's two sons, Mark and Douglas.
  • In 1973, Jim Redyke was overseeing demolition projects for the Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority when he began working in the industry. (Jim would later found Dykon Blasting)
  • Richard Gustafson's son, Scott, was beginning to build his reputation as a bridge specialist. (Richard and Scott would later co-found Demtech)
  • And Steve Rainwater was just entering the field as an apprentice. (Steve would eventually work with several of the aforementioned firms and found International Blasting Consultants)

A 1974 press release from one blasting firm claimed a history of felling 300 structures, and industry experts estimate that by the end of the decade, several thousand structures across the country had been razed via explosive demolition.

The 1980s:

In the early 1980s, an economic recession was beginning to be felt in the United States and staying profitable was the name of the game. This meant that increased importance was given to calculating the minimum amount of explosives necessary to complete a given project. This in turn led to a greater dependence on the "test blast"- a procedure initially recommended by powder-company consultants wherein a blaster removes a few columns with varying amounts of explosives to physically observe the results.

In the larger picture, computing and respecting this "failure threshold" was critical to staying competitive and obtaining more work. But applying these principles was not without risk: If a blaster miscalculated the minimum amount of explosives, the columns didn't fail and the community was left with a dangerous, partially standing building. Such failure could lead to insurance problems and possibly put the company out of business.

Although this scenario did occur on a few isolated projects, competence generally prevailed, and additional entrepreneurs emerged as reputable blasters in their own right, including:

  • Steve Pettigrew (founder of Demolition Dynamics)
  • Pat Carney (founder of Carney Demolition, which eventually became Chicago Explosive Services)
  • John Koehler (founder of Winchester Blasting)
  • And Allan Thompson (founder of Engineered Explosive Services)

Another industry, cable television, was literally "exploding" during the early 1980s, and this growth would have a substantial impact on the public's perception of explosive demolition through documentary programming.

Blasting documentaries were hardly new. From the 1930s through the late 1970s, dozens of newsreels and short films showcased structural blasting projects around the globe. Almost all of these films had two things in common. First, they rarely ran more than five minutes. And second, aside from the short feature on Mrs. Dynamite, they almost always focused on the demise of a specific landmark rather than on the demolition team.

In the mid-'80s, a sharp increase in demand for dramatic, reality-based TV programming led to the creation of the "blasting company profile." Documentary programs suddenly jumped from five minutes to an hour or more, and blasters began allowing film crews to track their team through all phases of a particularly challenging project. At first, the industry welcomed this as a way to advance the positive image of explosive demolition. However, many who initially embraced such programs had reservations regarding the perceived opportunism that followed.

Almost since their inception, some blasters have been accused of manipulating extended-length documentaries for promotional purposes, and even today, these programs are often criticized as representing little more than marketing vehicles intended to inaccurately portray some firms as more successful and trustworthy than others. In fact, a detailed review of several of these programs conducted by this author did reveal many questionable statements and claims that appear contradictory to known fact. However regardless of the overall accuracy or legitimacy of these programs, it is intuitively apparent that this type of popular, high-profile programming has profoundly affected how the general public views the industry.

The 1990s: The Industry Matures

Despite these growing pains, the structural blasting profession continued to thrive and expand into the 1990s, and a new generation of apprentices joined the field, including:
  • Jim Redyke's son, Jared, and Eric Kelly's son, Eric Jr., both of whom began working in their families' businesses.
  • Several technically knowledgable and experienced women, most notably Scott Gustafson's wife, Prudy, Steve Pettigrew's wife, Debbie, Mark Loizeaux's daughter, Stacey and Eric Kelly's partner, Lisa, all of whom would eventually assume substantial roles in the success of their respective companies.

With the end of the Cold War, several blasting companies secured lucrative contracts from the U.S. military to destroy weapons of mass-destruction, which resulted in some unusually lengthy and unique projects. One American team worked in Hungary disposing of Soviet scud missile launchers, while another worked for five years destroying more than 400 American ICBM silos at sites in North Dakota, South Dakota and Missouri.

In addition to military projects, the industry found a lucrative new market where dozens of abandoned, decaying tenements of public housing constructed in the 1960s were freed from regulatory restraint and made eligible for demolition. This created an avalanche of federally funded projects and paved the way for substantial urban renewal. In Newark, New Jersey alone, 34 high-rises were imploded by five different blasting firms. Similar operations were also conducted in Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Juan among other cities.

 

Motives Diversify

By the early 1990s, implosions of any type were drawing huge crowds, and the enormous popularity of these social events began playing a larger role in determining which buildings would be blasted - a decision that until now had almost exclusively been based on the cost of alternative demolition methods and related logistical factors. As publicity increased around every project, politicians, developers and general contractors began to view implosions as opportunities for free media exposure. This, in turn, led to the explosive demolition of structures that arguably would have been quicker and cheaper to demolish with a wrecking ball.

With "hype" assigned a dollar value, jobsite conditions changed dramatically. Blasters increasingly found themselves being besieged for autographs and TV interviews. Hollywood movie companies began spending big money on fireworks and special effects. Spectators started camping overnight to secure prime viewing locations. And preservationists learned to capitalize on local press coverage to speak out against the destruction of their city's history.

In October of 1994, the 2.7 million square foot Sears Merchandise Center in Philadelphia became the largest single structure ever demolished with explosives. More than 50,000 people witnessed the 12-second event. Crowds cheered, bands played, protesters protested and street vendors hawked commemorative "implosion" memorabilia.

Although many spectators and media outlets viewed the event as the last word in frivolity, the atmosphere was hardly unusual. Large urban implosion projects were now consistently being transformed into all-out Mardi-Gras-with-explosives bruhaha's… a potentially dangerous mix.

Deadly Effects

While the Sears project and countless others were completed without incident, a female onlooker in Glasgow, Scotland was killed by flying debris, and the next two years saw several American spectators injured by projectiles on various projects.

Then, in July 1997, the industry's worst fears were realized when a 13-year-old girl was killed by flying debris after her family had stopped on the way home from church to watch the highly publicized demolition of an Australian Hospital. The event made headlines around the world - first because of the tragedy, then because of the swarm of lawyers, political figures and others seeking personal gain from the incident - and triggered strong public debate in Australia about the safety of implosions in general.

Word of the accident spread rapidly through the blasting community, and almost overnight, implosions worldwide ceased being actively promoted as spectator events. Although the media continued to publicize these projects - and blasters have continued to struggle with crowd control and related issues to this day - the late 1990s brought a noticeable shift towards "promotional responsibility" resulting in the safe completion of hundreds of recent projects.

(I have just returned from Glasgow this week, where our firm participated in the blowdown of two 24-story high-rises. This was the city's first project using explosives since the 1993 fatality, which gives you an idea of the impact the tragedy had on the community. In addition, the city of Glasgow has passed a law banning any advanced publicity related to explosive demolition, and not a single news story ran prior to last Sunday's event.)

Beyond 2000:

As the commercial explosive-demolition industry heads into the new millennium, many contractors find themselves adjusting to the challenge of competing in the global marketplace. Within the past decade, virtually every major American-based company has performed work or formed alliances with firms based in other countries, while several European-based explosives experts have developed solid reputations with demolition contractors here in the States.


It is also important to note that dozens of regional "general purpose" blasting firms - many occasionally called upon to fell nearby smokestacks and industrial structures - continue to operate successfully throughout the United States, and the vast majority have consistently shown the same commitment to safety and professionalism as those mentioned here by name.

With regard to the next major domestic "trend" in the American structural-blasting market (such as public housing a decade ago), roughly 20 sports stadiums and arenas are scheduled for demolition over the next few years, and many of those appear to be good candidates for implosion. Stadiums in Atlanta, Tampa and Toronto established this trend in the late '90s, and projects in San Diego, Houston and Detroit may soon follow.

As of this writing, the most recent developments to affect the industry have been the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Although no explosives were used - and the World Trade Center towers didn't actually "implode" - explosive demolition projects throughout America and Europe were temporarily suspended amid security concerns and in deference to the tragedy. While the long-term effect of these events remains unseen, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms recently increased unscheduled visits to blast sites, and new regulations have been proposed in the areas of explosives storage and transportation.

The Impact of the Internet

Beyond the continuous advancement of explosive technology, it seems that the single most significant blasting innovation here at the turn of the century isn't a new type of explosive or blasting method, but rather the development of communication through the internet. Whether through the use of Web sites, e-mail or chat-groups (such as the ISEE's BlastServe), this technology allows explosives professionals around the world to learn more information and get it faster than anyone had imagined just a few years ago. Most important, it allows blasters to share critical data and experiences that help ensure every project is performed as safely as possible. Many industry veterans feel that this unified commitment to safety and ethical responsibility - above competition - will guarantee the long-term success of structural explosive demolition.


In sum, what appears today to be an efficient, economical - and often spectacular - way to demolish structures has its roots in developments of the past seven centuries. In many ways, today's blasting specialists are not all that different from those operating 100 years ago. Their success depends largely on developing new applications by improving upon the techniques of their predecessors, while optimizing the explosive technologies available at the time. And there's every reason to believe that this successful, time-proven evolutionary cycle will continue well into the future.

This concludes a very abbreviated version of this paper. If you'd like to review a transcript, it can be found at www.implosionworld.com. Thank you for your time, and thanks to the Society for allowing me to speak with you today.

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