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How the Surfside tower was imploded in just days: Hours of drilling, 128 pounds of dynamite

The remaining part of the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building falls with a controlled demolition on July 4, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)

When Mark Loizeaux arrived in Surfside late last week, the 73-year-old explosives veteran walked into a private debate on how long to wait before demolishing the unstable remains of the Champlain Towers South tower.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told reporters a demolition would take weeks. Loizeaux and his crew said they could do it in days.

“I think I can do this,” Loizeaux, CEO of Controlled Demolition Inc. of Phoenix, Maryland, recalled telling county and state authorities. “I can bring down the structure with minimal impact.”

Loizeaux appeared to deliver Sunday night — with an implosion that toppled the remaining 12-story structure in a matter of seconds and left what Levine Cava said was “only dust” on the existing rubble pile.

Clearing the site of the remaining tower removed the main impediment to a complete search of the areas, since portions of the pile where 117 people remain missing was off-limits to workers out of fear the structure would fall.

On Monday afternoon, authorities said search crews were working the full debris site.

“The site is busier and more active now than I’ve seen it since we began,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said at a press conference.

The swift hiring of CDI and the Delray Beach firm that oversaw the operation, BG Group, resolved the internal debate of how long to wait for demolition. On Friday, Burkett publicly urged Levine Cava to get the building demolished over the weekend, ahead of Elsa. He said Gov. Ron DeSantis agreed with him. Levine Cava said experts told her that kind of a schedule was “not possible.” On Monday, she said the Surfside operation was just becoming aware of what CDI could do when she made those comments days earlier.

“Who knew there was a company that could come in short order … prepare the building and bring it down, without disrupting the search site,” she told NBC 6 on Monday.

One challenge was potential red tape and the liability that would result if something went wrong with a rushed demolition.

“We spent two full days with a lot of attorneys trying to figure out the legal way to get it done,” said Steve Greenberg, founder of the BG Group, which hired CDI as a subcontractor for the Surfside operation.

Greenberg said he was in talks with the administration of  DeSantis about a quick demolition late last week ahead of a potential hit by tropical cyclone Elsa, even as he was seeing news report that such an operation would take weeks. “The governor basically directed them: There’s a storm coming, it’s not safe, get it done,” Greenberg said.

He said his team was visiting the site Thursday, and got the approval to start work on Friday. BD Group signed a state contract for $935,000 on Saturday, a document that lays out the job’s unique requirements. The mandates included 28,000 square feet of specialized tarp to protect the existing debris from falling material when the remaining building came down.

Sunday night, the controlled explosion sent a plume of dust and smoke into the sky. The cloud blew west into the neighborhood of single-family homes that make up the usually sleepy beach town of Surfside. Within minutes, a thick haze enveloped the neighborhood. By about 11 p.m., the air cleared. Police vehicles caked with dust drove away.

The demolition removed the primary threat to search crews on the rubble trying to recover victims for awaiting families. It also meant a new phase of loss for the Champlain Towers South residents who escaped with their lives but little else.

“To collapse an entire apartment building is a devastating decision, and the demolition was in no way a decision I made lightly,” said Levine Cava, who as Miami-Dade’s full-time mayor is the senior official overseeing the county operation. “We could not continue without bringing this building down.”

BG and CDI have worked on other high-profile demolitions in Miami-Dade, both together and separately. That includes the former Miami Herald headquarters on Biscayne Bay, the former Miami Arena near downtown Miami, and the South Shore hospital in Miami Beach.

Greenberg said the Surfside demolition was the fastest ever for BG Group, and one that skipped multiple steps. He said demolitions typically take weeks or months of advance notice for planning and permitting.

His crews also would strip a building of its contents to lower the potential for flying debris. That didn’t happen at Champlain Towers South, where the tower was considered too risky for that kind of work. Crews even skipped the traditional spraying of water to reduce dust, out of concerns the extra weight could cause stability issues.

Loizeaux called the job “probably one of the most difficult we’ve been asked to approach.”

The task was not unprecedented. CDI helped demolish a portion of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, after it was bombed in April 1995. In that case, he said, he also had to demolish a portion of the building while trying to keep debris from falling over human remains in another part of the site.

Loizeaux did not just show up to Surfside last week — authorities invited him down because CDI has done so much work and is considered among the most experienced and professional demolition companies in the United States. He said he brought down his first building in Miami in 1973, and has worked extensively in Florida. The Loizeaux family has been demolishing buildings since the 1940s, and most recently imploded a coal-fired plant in Indiantown earlier this year.

Authorities offered to send a plane. Loizeaux instead took a Southwest flight from Baltimore. “To save the taxpayers some money,” he said.

Even before officials in Surfside gave the green light, Loizeaux was shifting personnel from other projects across the country for the potential emergency operation in Florida.

He pulled two drillers off a project in Bayonne, New Jersey — they drove 23 hours to get to Surfside in time. A truck delivered the dynamite from Baltimore.

His crew of seven drilled 165 holes in Champlain Towers South for the dynamite, in shear wall and concrete columns on the first and second floors of the upright structure. In all, they used 128 pounds of dynamite, Loizeaux said. “Which is not much,” he said.

Loizeaux said state transportation workers covered electrical and water utilities equipment on Collins Avenue, to protect against possible debris causing outages.

By 10:30 p.m. Sunday night, Loizeaux was at the Miami-Dade command post on Collins and 87th Avenue, directing the audio signals and countdown. The mayor gave the go-ahead and the countdown began.

“I don’t get nervous,” Loizeaux said. “A lot of people were pacing around. … I do this all the time.”

The string of explosives was perfectly timed. The remaining structure pancaked on itself, a giant cloud of grayish dust billowing westward into the sky. The special fabric tarp that had been stretched over the “historic” debris field was coated only in dust.

“Nothing went backward. Zero. There was nothing on the fabric” covering the earlier rubble, he said. No debris got on Collins Avenue either, he said.

“We didn’t even break a window in the adjacent building. Not one,” he added.

He praised Miami-Dade and other rescue teams who moved in immediately to remove the fabric and resume searching by 1 a.m., once the scene was declared safe. Within short order, three more bodies were found. “They are a wonderful community of compassionate people,” he said of the search teams. “We were only there a few days. They have weeks in front of them. They don’t get enough recognition.”

Loizeaux said he got some sleep early Monday, and was back at the scene at daybreak to do one last survey before hopping on a flight back to Maryland. By 5 p.m., he was back home.

“Off to other projects,” he said.


© 2021 Miami Herald
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