Deceased U.S. veterans soon will be able rest in peace among the rolling hills of central Alabama due to a $3.7 million project to build the initial phase of a new Department of Veterans Affairs cemetery in Montevallo.
The relatively small-scale phase is designed to allow burials to begin as soon as late April or early May, rather than waiting until the large-scale “first phase” plan for Alabama National Cemetery comes to fruition.
BSI Contracting Inc. of Mountain Brook, Ala., landed the $3,725,405 negotiated contract for the initial 12.7-acre (5.1 ha) development, which the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) estimates will provide two years of burials with 1,000 pre-placed, double-depth crypt gravesites, 45 standard gravesites and 1,000 in-ground cremation sites.
Work began Oct. 21, said Porter McCollister, project manager of BSI Contracting, whose owner, Ben Sanchez, became disabled during his service in the U.S. Army.
While contractors have encountered a little more rock than anticipated on the site and had to deal with some mud in December — which was no surprise, knowing Alabama weather patterns —the job is on target for completion April 18.
The Right Place for a
Covered with grass and marked with marble gravestones, the gravesites for coffin burials will look like a traditional cemetery, though most are actually precast concrete crypts buried underground and then topped with a couple feet of soil and sod, said Christopher D. English, senior resident engineer of the Alabama National Cemetery.
The crypts, manufactured by Southern Precast Inc. of Alachua, Fla., are referred to as “quads” because they are cast side-by-side and can potentially accommodate four coffins, with two coffins placed one on top of the other on each side.
“The idea is that the veteran and his or her spouse can be placed together on one side at separate times,” English said.
The design allows for about 800 coffins to be placed in a space that would accommodate only about 500 coffins using conventional burial sites.
“It’s actually a huge land savings for the government to go that route,” English said, noting that the demand for new veterans cemeteries tends to be in areas where large, suitable tracts of land are hard to find.
“Land is at a premium nowadays. Our goal is to serve the best where they’re at,” said English, noting the VA looked at the demographics of the area within a 75- to 100-mi. (121 to 161 km) radius to determine need for the new cemetery in Montevallo.
The VA, which operates 125 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico, is in the midst of its largest expansion since the Civil War, according to a press release from the Office of Public Affairs.
Having the crypts in place also means less work and a lower cost at the time of burial, as only a relatively small amount of earth has to be removed to get to the crypt instead of having to excavate a 6-ft.-deep (1.8 m) hole, English said.
And most states now require a concrete vault around the casket, he said, “so this substitutes for that.”
The 45 standard gravesites are for oversized caskets and are located at the end of the crypt rows, in line with the headstones.
The first phase also includes temporary administration and maintenance buildings, a temporary committal service shelter for funeral services, a permanent entrance road and a temporary road leading to the burial areas.
The Makings of a Cemetery
Heavy dirt work accounts for about 60 to 70 percent of the job.
“Predominantly, the bulk of the work being done is excavation and grading,” English said.
Preparation of the job site, which was primarily flatter pasture land on the mostly hilly site, entailed the clearing and grubbing of trees using trackhoes, burning the removed vegetation, then removing and storing the topsoil using scrapers and dozers.
Ellard Contracting Company Inc. of Birmingham, Ala., was subcontracted for the excavation and utility work on the job.
They’ve been able to work with the soil there for the project needs.
“All the soil is being reused on the site,” McCollister said.
“We’re not hauling anything off or bringing anything in.”
Ellard Contracting used an excavator with a hammer attachment to deal with the rock on site.
After cutting the earth in the crypt bedding area to subgrade, the area was graded to drain (typically 2 percent slope). A mechanical grader was used for final fine grading.
A storm drainage system — consisting of a liner, layer of gravel and drainage pipe tied in to the storm sewer network — was installed.
Work included excavating slit trenches for drain tiles, perforated corrugated HDPE pipe in fabric sock. Filter fabric was installed and pinned along the edges.
After the area was lined, it was covered with a layer of gravel, which was then fine graded and compacted.
It was designed so the burial areas don’t flood.
“A lot of effort is put into keeping them high and dry,” McCollister said.
Frontier Construction, based in Deer River, Minn., was subcontracted for the crypt installation work.
“Experienced crews can place more than 100 crypts a day,” said English.
A lift cable is looped around the vault and lifted using a trackhoe, though final setting is done by hand, with wood block used to ensure proper spacing.
Because it can be impossible to repair a damaged crypt that is installed in the middle of a crypt field, English said they spend a great deal of time inspecting them before they are installed.
Frontier Construction has a lot of experience installing precast burial vaults, according to its Web site.
In 2007, it installed 3,000 at Fort Mitchell National Cemetery at Fort Mitchell in Seale, Ala., 3,500 at Rock Island National Cemetery in Rock Island, Ill., and 2,000 at Iowa Veterans Cemetery in Van Meter, Iowa, according to the site.
Honoring Our Heroes
In 2005, Frontier Construction set burial crypts at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill., near Joliet, and constructed columbarium at Fort Snelling National Cemetery at Fort Snelling in Minneapolis, Minn.
Columbarium — featuring above-ground 2- by 2-ft. (0.6 by 0.6 m) niches for cremation remains — will be included in the next phase of construction at Alabama National Cemetery.
“They’re beautiful when they’re completed, a lot of natural stone and marble,” he said, noting the columbarium are 4 ft. (1.2 m) high and 10 ft. (3 m) wide with niches on both sides.
The initial phase of the cemetery project — referred to as “Phase 1A (Fast Tract)” — includes roughly a 0.25 mi. (0.4 km) of road construction, whereas the next phase will include about 0.75 mi. (1.2 km) of new road.
In addition to the entrance road and temporary road to the burial sites, the job calls for widening AL 119 at the cemetery entrance to provide a turning lane in both directions.
Contractors also built a three-barrel culvert bridge over a small drainage stream.
Dunn Construction of Birmingham was contracted for the paving portion of the job.
In constructing the roads, English has worked with the contractor to alter the design when necessary to save trees that would have stood in the way. Trees on the site include live oaks, hickories and a few cedars.
“The goal is to preserve the trees as much possible,” English said. “The direction to the contractor is minimal disruption.”
At this point, all of the crypts have been installed, about 80 percent of the grading is complete, and workers are installing base on the roads.
Utilities work is about 50 percent complete, and they are starting to work on the sprinkler system.
Owens Landscape Group of Birmingham has been subcontracted for the landscaping work.
The next portion of the project — “Phase 1B” — is currently under design by Civil Consultants Inc. of Birmingham, which in September 2007 was awarded a $1.3 million contract to design the cemetery, according to the VA’s Office of Public Affairs.
When complete, the overall first phase will consist of roughly 45 acres and the facilities needed to provide burials for about 10 years, according to the VA. The first-phase interment areas will provide 9,100 full-casket gravesites, 3,100 in-ground cremation sites and about 2,700 columbarium niches for cremation remains.
The cemetery also will include an administrative and public information center, an electronic gravesite locator, public restrooms, a maintenance facility, an entrance area, a flag assembly area, a memorial walkway, and two committal shelters for funeral services.
Construction of Phase 1B is expected to start in late summer or early fall.
In March 2008, the VA named Quincy Whitehead as the first director of the new cemetery.
Before the appointment, Whitehead had been director of Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Fla., since 2005. An Army veteran who also served in the Army Reserve and Naval Reserve, she has worked at national cemeteries in Leavenworth, Kan., Quantico, Va., and Milwaukee.
Alabama National Cemetery is located about 5 mi. (8 km) west of Interstate 65 and adjacent to American Village, a museum that teaches history and citizenship through recreation of colonial life.
While targeted at Alabamians, the cemetery is open to any veteran eligible for veteran’s benefits, their spouses and eligible dependent children.
“In the end, we, the VA, strive for a pristine national park appearance,” he said. “A lot of work goes into it … to honor our heroes, our veterans.” CEG
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