Heavy construction equipment is currently working its way across the gently rolling sandhills of central South Carolina as part of a project to expand the recently dedicated Fort Jackson National Cemetery.
When it first opened last year, the cemetery became one of 125 national burial sites spread over 39 states and Puerto Rico honoring more than 3 million American veterans.
The new 585-acre national cemetery is located adjacent to the U.S. Army’s sprawling Fort Jackson base just east of Columbia and south of Interstate 20.
The cemetery was dedicated last fall by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and, when completed in another 10-15 years, will provide gravesites for about 170,000 veterans.
Work began on the initial phase of the $19 million project in May 2008 with a 15-acre early burial area and temporary facilities. Known as Phase 1A, this piece of land began seeing burials and funerals late last year. The work was done by International Public Works LLC, a Charleston, S.C.-based construction and engineering firm.
The work currently going on at the cemetery is known as Phase 1B and encompasses 74 acres. This phase of the project includes the installation of 4,224 concrete vaults, 5,000 full-casket gravesites, another 5,000 in-ground cremation sites and the construction of a 2,000-niche columbarium. In addition, several buildings and memorials will be erected and extensive landscaping will be put in place.
LW Construction of Charleston LLC, a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business, is coordinating the current phase. The VA awarded a $10.3 million contract to the firm earlier this summer and work got underway shortly thereafter. LW subcontracted the earthmoving and paving part of the project to another Charleston company, Landmark Construction.
Ron Brantley, LW’s project supervisor on the Fort Jackson work, said that his outfit was given 540 days to complete the job, meaning that Phase 1B should be done in early 2011.
“The site was actually harvested of its timber before we began work, so we just came in and got rid of the stumps and chipped it out,” he explained. “All the chips were then reused and spread around the reforested areas. We are also producing a number of different retention ponds. Later, we will be putting up two main buildings, a maintenance structure and an administration building.”
LW will also build a pair of committal service shelters, where gravesite services will be held, as well as the columbarium niches, which, Brantley said, will have marble faces.
After that, LW will build several other support buildings, along with a flag assembly area, which Brantley said would be a raised platform with a curved brick wall that will display the emblems of each of the U.S. armed services. Visitors will be able to access it via a set of sidewalks and ramps.
“Another main part of our work is the installation of the 4,224 pre-placed crypts,” Brantley continued. “Each is a dual crypt, with spaces for two caskets, one low and one high, and they will be precisely placed and covered with about 21 inches of general fill and topsoil.”
Mack Industries, based in Brunswick, Ohio, will manufacture and install the pre-cast crypts, Brantley said. In addition, The Greenery, a Charleston landscape firm, will handle the cemetery’s large amount of landscaping in Phase 1B.
Brantley explained that the soil at Fort Jackson is very sandy and dry, making it easier to work in. With the water table in the Sandhills being about 180 feet down, any rain that falls in the area quickly disappears, he said.
“So when it rains here you can keep working and you don’t have to wait for it to dry out like you do if you were working in the Low Country around Charleston,” Brantley explained. “In fact, I was told that in Phase 1A they never lost any work time due to rain.”
Landmark has really been the firm to enjoy the benefit of the sandy soil, according to Jeremy Blackstock. The director of Landmark’s site work and civil department, Blackstock said that his crews are now busily leveling the slightly hilly area. That type of terrain is perfect, he said, for using heavy equipment that utilizes double-barreled pans.
“After we balance the site, we’ll dig out an area for the crypts and get it all prepped for the general contractor,” he added. “LW will put up some buildings and get the vertical construction going before we come back in and do the road construction, some concrete work and some brick pavers, as well as the back filling of the crypts and soil stabilization.”
Landmark’s portion of the contract is just under $3 million, Blackstock said.
For the clearing and grubbing work, Landmark used primarily Caterpillar 315 and 320 excavators, but now that the firm is into moving more dirt at the site, they have brought in a variety of equipment, including John Deere bulldozers and Volvo excavators. A workhorse at the Fort Jackson site will be the Terex TS 14B scraper, according to Joe Johnson, a general superintendent for Landmark.
“Over the years as we have run lots of different equipment, like the Terex TS 14B, we have learned what pieces are the real heavy horses that move a lot of dirt and move it well,” he said. “With the Terex, the durability is there, as well as the longevity, and the maintenance is minimum. They move a lot of earth and they move it quick.”
In the end, said Blackstock, the most important thing to remember while working at the site of a veteran’s cemetery is to show reverence for the solemnity of the place, not always an easy task when operating heavy, noisy machinery.
“With construction taking place while funerals are happening, there is a learning curve to make sure that you respect the whole process,” Blackstock said. “I think our guys really understand that.”