Demolition Crews Vow to Press On Following Fatal Accident

Mon September 26, 2005 - Southeast Edition

CHARLESTON, SC (AP) Like an old person with arthritis, the 76-year-old John P. Grace Memorial Bridge moves and moans. The long metal expansion joints that have held sections of concrete together for so many years now rattle and pull apart as man and machine tear away a section at a time.

Bringing down the Grace and the Silas N. Pearman bridges is a loud, dusty, dangerous job, as section after section breaks free and tumbles onto heaps of debris below.

The process turned deadly last month, when a section of the Pearman bridge unexpectedly broke loose, causing Chris Wareham to fall 100 ft. to his death.

Wareham was employed by Massachusetts-based Testa Corp., which had joined forces with Jay Cashman Inc. to win the $59.6-million bridge demolition contract. The company’s president called work to a halt for two days after losing the crew member.

“I consider all my workers part of my extended family,” said Pio Monsini, the project superintendent, after Wareham’s death. “We shall band together, move forward and become better workers. And we shall take those bridges down.”

The crew was together on a recent afternoon to talk about the accident and job safety. They vowed to press on. Wrecking is in their blood.

“They’re all part of the same tribe, the guys who build bridges and the guys who take them apart,” said Joe Duffy, project manager. “It’s a calling, a lifestyle they’ve signed onto. At the end of the day, they know they’ve done a good day’s work.”

Members of the demolition crew aren’t necessarily destructive individuals; but with high-powered equipment at their fingertips, they are tearing away at the old bridges. And like the crew that built the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, the demolition team also will have a profound and historic effect on the skyline over the Cooper River.

“It’s like Tyrannosaurus rex working out there,” Duffy said. “They’re out there just ripping stuff up.”

In a month’s time, they have stripped pavement from roughly 3,000 ft. of the Pearman and dumped mangled heaps of concrete and twisted aluminum on downtown streets.

Residents have appeared daily to watch the crew work. Duffy calls it “the biggest sideshow in downtown Charleston.”

The sideshow features a diverse cast of characters. Duffy is recognizable with his neatly trimmed gray goatee. The project manager keeps everyone on task.

He’s been involved with 23 large projects in his career, including the construction of the Don Holt Bridge on Interstate 526 and Savannah’s Talmadge Bridge. He’s accustomed to having his orders followed, except during the weekend or two each month he spends with his wife on a farm near Clemson.

“At home I’m obedient,” Duffy said. “The first day I’m back, I usually just listen to what she tells me to do.”

Equipment Operators Jack Foley and Mike Hebb speak with thick Boston accents. They came to dismantle the old Cooper River bridges because of the money and the prestige.

“Most wanted to come down for the challenge,” Hebb said. “These are the highest bridges we’ve ever done.”

The job also attracted young engineers such as Ken Canty, who moved back here more than two years ago to help build the Ravenel Bridge. He sees his job in the context of Charleston history.

“My ancestors came through this port more than 250 years ago as slaves from Africa,” Canty said. “I’m looking right out to where they were sold … and now look at me.”

Monsini is a veteran. He’s a stout man with a gap-toothed grin who, along with his five brothers, learned the “art of demolition” from their Italian immigrant father at the age of 13. He said his job isn’t about “wrecking stuff,” but of getting rid of the old, the past, to make way for something new.

“Demolition is in the blood that flows through my veins,” Monsini said. CEG