This is NOT a Halloween tale. But it is a horror story.
Just under a week ago, a demolition crew in New Orleans was waiting for the sun to come up to allow them to make their final preparations ahead of a high profile explosive demolition job that would be watched live by thousands of local people and that would be broadcast into millions of homes around the world.
Demolition is never easy. But the task facing this particular crew was especially challenging. They were required to bring down a pair of tower cranes, the integrity of which had been compromised by the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel building to which they were attached a week before. That collapse had already claimed lives. There could be no repeat.
Now there’s three things to note here, before we go any further.
The first is that tower cranes are the spawn of Satan; a verticla prison in which a highly trained man (or woman) with huge skill, precision and hand/eye co-ordination is punished unjustly with prolonged periods of solitary confinement, isolated from the camaraderie and banter taking place far below. I have been up two tower cranes in my life and I regretted it both times. I regretted it the first time because it was high and it was windy and it was swaying. I hated it even more the second time because it was all those things again AND I had allowed myself to be talked into repeating the exercise.
The second thing to note is that explosive demolition is an art practiced by just a very small handful of highly-experienced and highly-professional engineers around the world. And among that select band, there is an even smaller number of people that have ever blasted a tower crane.
The third thing to note is that blasting a tower crane is very different to blasting a building or a structure like a cooling tower. In that instance, there is months of planning and weeks of preparation. Explosives are packed into boreholes and charges are contained to create the implosion effect required to bring down the structure in its own footprint. On the New Orleans tower cranes, there were no boreholes and there was no implosion. There was no time for preparation.
With high winds barrelling towards the city, those tower cranes needed to come down quickly and in the most controlled way possible in the time allotted.
The blast when it came was spectacular. As the charges were not contained, huge fireballs ripped the sky before the crane jibs tumbled to the ground. In fact, several people on our Facebook page actually questioned whether the blast was real or part of some elaborate Hollywood CGI sequence.
Was it a perfectly executed job? You would need to ask the engineers that planned the descent of the crane jibs. Was it aesthetically pleasing; a balletic display of steel succumbing to the pull of gravity? No. Frankly, depending on which camera angle you looked at, it looked pretty bloody untidy; like so many giraffe falling down so many stairs. But no-one was hurt and no-one was killed. In fact, by getting the cranes on the ground before the high winds hit, there is every possibility that lives were actually saved by the actions of the demolition crew.
The timely intervention of the demolition crew should be applauded then, right? The fact that they dropped everything to attend to an emergency situation should see them praised and lauded by their peers, right? The bravery of the men that placed the explosives on the crane jibs high above “The Big Easy” could be worthy of a medal or something, right?
Sadly though, this is the world of demolition; this is the age of the Internet and social media; and this is the domain of the keyboard warrior.
There was still dust in the air when the criticism began. Armchair engineers and experts crawled out from the caves they generally occupy to hold forth on how THEY would have tackled this difficult and treacherous job. Of course, none of them had walked the site. None of them knew the true condition of the cranes. None of them were aware of the high winds forecast in the area. In fact, as far as I could tell, none of them had ever blasted anything in their lives, aside from each other. Yet, from the safety of their keyboards, THEY were the experts.
Maybe this is not unique to the demolition sector. But it does seem ironic that, in this of all sectors, that the best way to build yourself up is seemingly to tear down someone else.
I witnessed the same phenomenon in the aftermath of the Didcot disaster as TV crews spoke to one armchair expert after another, all of whom had “seen it coming” and had told EVERYONE that it was “an accident waiting to happen”. I am calling BS. If you were that much of an expert my friend, you would have been INSIDE the site hoarding, not outside watching it unfold through your binoculars from your mother’s dingy back bedroom.
Somehow, though, the online pronouncements upon the success (or otherwise) of the crane blast in New Orleans was worse. Many of the people making these pronouncements work in demolition. And while they might not be involved in the field of explosives, they know better than most what a tricky, hazardous and challenging business this is.
The fact that they chose to criticise their own so publicly and so vehemently perhaps sheds light on why so few men (and it is mainly men) in this industry are willing to share their concerns, their internal battles or their vulnerability. Because, based upon this latest episode, it wouldn’t matter how bad your problems might be or how severe your depression is.
There will be an armchair expert out there that would have done it better.