Bringing Down The House
Mark Loizeaux likens it to the best shots of a golf game when he's "in the zone"--completely in control, master of his domain. "There's no feeling like it," he says, recalling the 1975 demolition of a 32-story tower in São Paulo, Brazil. At 361 feet, it was at that time the tallest free-standing concrete building ever felled by explosives. "You look at a structure and you own it; you know its inclinations, you know what it wants to do," he says. "It just slid down smoothly and disappeared into an 80-foot-deep excavation pit like a rabbit slipping into its hole. It was beautiful."
It is an immutable law: Any structure that goes up will eventually come down--by the laws of nature or the will of man. Stonehenge will erode to rubble over eons, Egypt's pyramids over millenniums, and Europe's cathedrals over centuries. The life span of modern structures will be measured in decades. Most will be clumsily bashed to pieces over weeks or months by cranes swinging headache balls. The bigger, more difficult ones will be razed in seconds with spectacular explosive elegance by experts in the art and science of controlled demolition.
The technique was pioneered by the late Jack Loizeaux, who began as a forester in Baltimore. He used dynamite to remove tree stumps and in the late 1940s began toppling chimneys, overpasses, and small buildings. Honing his techniques, he began dropping ever larger structures in urban areas, and an industry was born. "We kick out the supports, and the good Lord and gravity do the rest," he liked to say.
In 1960, when Jack incorporated the business, Mark, 13, was already working with his father after school. Doug joined in 1972, and in 1991, Mark's daughter Stacey, 32, became the third generation of America's first family of Unbuilders. By now Maryland-based Controlled Demolition Inc. has brought down thousands of structures, reportedly more than all its global competitors combined.
Records. Some of the family's destructive feats are listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. There's the Seattle Kingdome (largest structure by volume); the 1,200-foot Omega radio tower in Argentina (tallest structure); and the 33-floor J. L. Hudson department store in Detroit (tallest building). Their handiwork includes demolishing 26 buildings damaged in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake; the Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and Atlanta's Omni arena; and failed housing projects such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis. They have leveled abandoned radars and missile sites in Europe and a whole block in Dallas.
Anyone with rudimentary knowledge of blasting techniques can blow up a building. The Loizeauxs implode things down. They collapse a structure inward within its footprint or lay it down in a predetermined direction to avoid collateral damage to adjacent structures. After a detailed structural analysis, they use a minimum amount of explosives strategically placed in holes drilled in critical support columns or strapped to support beams. These are detonated in an exquisitely timed sequence lasting from milliseconds to a full nine seconds. Weight and gravity do the rest. Some Loizeaux techniques developed over the decades are proprietary and the principal reason for their commercial success and safety record. Their implosions have never caused a death or injury.
The tools of destruction range from standard dynamite, used to shatter concrete, to linear shaped charges that concentrate the force of a high explosive called RDX, slicing through steel with millions of pounds of pressure per square inch. In a 2001 project, for example, it took a mere 80 pounds of shaped charges to bring down each of two New York gas storage tanks built with 5 million pounds of steel.
Building implosions have become a popular spectator sport; millions have gathered to witness these stunning and beautiful tableaux of destruction. The showbiz side of their profession has enhanced the family's fame. Their blasts have been featured in major Hollywood movies including Atlantic City, Lethal Weapon 3, Demolition Man, and Enemy of the State. In 1993, their implosion of the 22-story north tower of the Dunes hotel for Las Vegas resort mogul Steve Wynn drew 250,000 spectators.
There is a more somber side to CDI's work. In 1995, the company was asked to demolish the remains of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Building, blown up by Timothy McVeigh. The Murrah building was a prelude to the greater disaster of Sept. 11, 2001. Like most Americans, the Loizeauxs were transfixed by the televised scenes of destruction shortly after the first jet struck. But as experts in buildings' vulnerabilities, they knew right away what few Americans realized. "I told Doug immediately that the tower was coming down, and when the second tower was hit, that it would follow," remembers Mark.
Horrified, the Loizeaux brothers watched first responders streaming into the doomed towers and tried frantically, and unsuccessfully, to phone in warnings. In the following days, CDI was called to ground zero to consult on safety and develop plans for demolition and debris removal. What if the twin towers, though badly damaged, had somehow remained standing? Without doubt, the Loizeaux family would have been called upon to bring them down. "Quite simply," says Mark in a rare moment of introspective uncertainty, "I don't know how we would have done it."
This story appears in the June 30, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.