2: THE COMMERCIALIZATION OF EXPLOSIVE DEMOLITION
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.
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)
Evans was an explosives-disposal technician at Hill
Air Force Base in Utah. (David would later found Precision
Loizeaux was blasting tree stumps for the U.S. Forestry
Service in Georgia. (Jack would later found Controlled
Kelly was working in the coal mines of Northern Pennsylvania.
(Alfred's son, Eric, would later found Engineered Demolition)
Gustafson worked for a construction contractor, blasting
rock for building foundations and basements. (Richard
would later help establish Rucker Explosive Demolition.)
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
1970s also brought a second generation of commercial explosive-demolition
McAlinden's son, Merritt Jr., began to consistently
bring down structures on his own, as did Jack Loizeaux's
two sons, Mark and Douglas.
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
Gustafson's son, Scott, was beginning to build his reputation
as a bridge specialist. (Richard and Scott would later
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)
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 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.
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.
this scenario did occur on a few isolated projects, competence
generally prevailed, and additional entrepreneurs emerged
as reputable blasters in their own right, including:
Pettigrew (founder of Demolition Dynamics)
Carney (founder of Carney Demolition, which eventually
became Chicago Explosive Services)
Koehler (founder of Winchester Blasting)
Allan Thompson (founder of Engineered Explosive Services)
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.
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
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.
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:
Redyke's son, Jared, and Eric Kelly's son, Eric Jr.,
both of whom began working in their families' businesses.
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
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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
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
a potentially dangerous mix.
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
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Impact of the Internet
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.
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.