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Interview with Stacey Loizeaux

Stacey LoizeauxStacey Loizeaux, twenty-six years old, has worked for Controlled Demolition, an international explosives engineering firm, since the age of fifteen. She learned the fine art of demolition from her father, Mark Loizeaux, and her uncle, Doug Loizeaux—president and vice-president of the company. NOVA spoke with Ms. Loizeaux a few days before Christmas, 1996.

NOVA: A common misconception is that you blow buildings up. That's not really the case, is it?

Stacy Loizeaux: No. The term "implosion" was coined by my grandmother back in, I guess, the '60s. It's a more descriptive way to explain what we do than "explosion." There are a series of small explosions, but the building itself isn't erupting outward. It's actually being pulled in on top of itself. What we're really doing is removing specific support columns within the structure and then cajoling the building in one direction or another, or straight down.

NOVA: I understand that you try to use the smallest amount of explosives possible.

SL: Right.

NOVA: Can you explain why?

Placing charges in holes in concreteSL: Well, the explosives are really just the catalyst. Largely what we use is gravity. And we're dealing with Class A explosives that are embedded into concrete—and that concrete flies. So, let's say your explosive is 17,000 feet per second—you've got a piece of concrete moving at that speed when you remove it from the structure. So we try to use the minimal amount to keep down the fly of debris for a safe operation. Other than that, it comes down to cost effectiveness. You know, the more holes you have to drill, it's more labor, more time, and it's more expensive. So, obviously, the smallest amount of work is best.

NOVA: What kind of analysis goes into figuring out how to demolish a building?

SL: Well, we've got what we refer to as our historic database, which is largely in my father and my uncle's brain. Ninety-five percent of our knowledge has come from hands-on experience—learning, watching different structures, watching the way they move. A lot of times my father and my uncle will walk in a building and they'll say, "Oh, this is just like the such and such building. This is what we're going to do." So, there really isn't a class you can take. There's no book you can read that's going to teach you how to do this. It's really a practical physical understanding of how buildings work. You know, just because an engineer designed a building to work one way, it doesn't mean that, when they built it, that that's actually how it's working. We have to go in and decide what is load bearing, what is not—what is safe to remove, what isn't. So there's quite a bit of in-the-field analysis that goes on.

NOVA: Do you tend to look at blueprints?

SL: Well, 90 percent of the time we don't have them. A lot of times those plans have been misplaced or have disintegrated into dust. But when we do have them, yeah, we use them but we don't rely on them. There's a difference between 'as drawn' and 'as built'. And you never trust the drawings. That's why we do test shots, which is going in and picking out a few key columns and actually loading them with explosives and shooting them ahead of time, to understand the loads within the columns.

NOVA: Can you describe the prep work that goes into dropping a building.

Preparing the buildingSL: Well, it depends on the structure, obviously. We've had chimneys prepared in half a day and we've had buildings that take three months. Generally we don't do the preparation work. We are usually an implosion subcontractor, meaning that there is a main demolition contractor on site, who's been contracted by the property owner or the developer, and they then subcontract the implosion to us. We will then ask them to perform preparatory operations, including non-load bearing partition removal—meaning, the dry wall that separates the rooms. It's not carrying the weight of the building. It's just there as a divider. But what happens—you know, if you have a case of beer—all the little cardboard reinforcements inside? If you have all those little cardboard reinforcements, then you can jump up and down on the case. But if you take them out, the case will crush under your weight. Those little partitions actually add up and act as stiffeners. So that's one of the first things we strip out. The second thing we do is drilling. Depending on the height of the structure, we'll work on a couple of different floors—usually anywhere from two to six. The taller the building, the higher up we work. We only really need to work on the first two floors, because—you can make the building come down that way. But we work on several upper floors to geotextile fence around buildinghelp fragment debris for the contractor, so all the debris ends up in small, manageable pieces. Other preparatory operations are covering—wrapping the columns with chain link fence and then in geotextile fabric, which is very puncture resistant and has a very high tensile strength. It allows the concrete to move, but it keeps the concrete from flying. The chain link catches the bigger material and the fabric catches the smaller material from flying up and out. We also sometimes put up a curtain around the entire floor, to catch the stuff that gets through these first two layers. That's really where your liability is.

NOVA: Why do the explosive charges go off at intervals rather than all at once?

Buildings coming downSL: Well, if I kick both your legs out from under you, you're going to fall right on your butt. If I kick one leg out from under you, you'll fall left or right. So the way we control the failure of the building is by using the delays. And, again, that varies structure to structure and depending on where we want the building to go. A lot of people, when they see a building implosion, expect it to go into its own basement, which is not always what the contractor wants. Sometimes the contractor wants to lay the building out like a tree. And, sometime, we need to bring down buildings that are actually touching other buildings.

NOVA: How do you do that?

SL: Well, you just pull it away, you peel it off. If you have room in the opposite direction, you just let the building sort of melt down in that direction and it will pull itself completely away from the building. It can be done.

NOVA: What are some of the factors that make certain buildings harder to bring down than others?

Sands HotelSL: Reinforcing is a big part of it. We just took down a building in Vegas—the Sands Hotel. And it was one of the first high rises along the strip proper. When we went in and started removing some concrete, we said, "Holy Cow, what the heck were they building?" I mean, the way it was built, they could have put another 15 stories on top of this thing. Our theory was that it was originally Mafioso owned, and probably the poor engineer was so terrified of it ever falling down that he just reinforced the heck out of it!

NOVA: I understand your demolition of the Landmark Hotel served as a backdrop for the movie, "Mars Attack." Do you do a lot of movie work?

SL: Yeah, we do quite a bit of movie work. It's funny you asked me that, because I was just rooting around in my attic for Christmas decorations and I found a picture of me with Mel Gibson, when we were shooting "Lethal Weapon 3." I thought, oh God, I've got to take this back downstairs so everyone can see it! (laughs) We've worked on "Lethal Weapon 3", we've worked on "Demolition Man." We worked on some older films, "Telephone" with Charles Bronson.

NOVA: Do these tend to be building you're demolishing anyway?

SL: Well, it depends. We've had jobs where we've already got the contract to bring a building down and Warner Brothers or whoever comes on site and says, "Hey, can we film that?" But we've also had jobs where the studio actually finds the job for us and says, "Here, blow this up." It's been very fruitful for us but, you know, Hollywood is so accustomed to make believe, it's sometimes hard to explain, "Hey, guys, this is not pretend. This is the real McCoy and you've got to follow our direction."

NOVA: What do you look for in an explosive?

SL: Velocity. You have two different types of explosives. You have low order and high order. A low order explosive is like what they used when they bombed the Oklahoma City building—that's ANFO, ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. It's a very slow, heaving explosion. It tends to push more than it does shatter. The explosive we look for is a shattering explosive. What we want to do is instantaneously remove the integrity of the columns or whatever we're working on. That's what we look for in nitroglycerin or NG-based dynamite. With a steel building, we use something called a linear shaped charge. It's the same explosive they use to sever the fuel tank off the Space Shuttle, when they launch.

NOVA: Have you done any underwater work?

SL: Yeah, we've done quite a bit of underwater work. I actually lived in St. Petersburg, Florida for 8 months removing underwater concrete piers that were part of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, a five mile bridge. Underwater work is interesting because, obviously, you're coordinating with divers. None of us are divers. We hire a diving team and, you know, we give them instruction.

NOVA: When you're underwater, how do you spark an explosive?

SL: You don't. There are very few explosives that are spark sensitive anymore. Most are shock sensitive or compression sensitive.

NOVA: What can go wrong on a job? What do you have to watch for?

people close to explosionSL: Our biggest problem, when we come right down to the wire with shooting buildings, is ground control. That is the hardest thing. For some reason people think that they can stand right next to a building coming down and that they're going to be OK. We've pulled people out of manholes that were 15 feet from the building, pulled people out of trees right next to the building. And people will make great efforts to camouflage themselves. We've had guys dress up as bushes, you know, blacken their faces and try to get the best camera angle. It's unbelievable.

NOVA: How does someone become a demolition expert?

SL: Know somebody. (laughs) Really, most of the people in the business—in fact all of the ones that I know, are either family or friends. At one point in time, we had a chef, a gym teacher, a carpenter. I mean none of these people were ever trained in demolition. It's easier to start from scratch with someone, just hands-on training.

NOVA: I understand that Controlled Demolition was hired to bring down the remains of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Were you out there for that?

SL: That was a little too much for me, emotionally. I asked not to go on that job. My father and my uncle went out.

NOVA: How did they describe it?

SL: Well, any time you have a damaged structure it's a totally different animal. I mean it is much harder for us to bring down a structure that's already damaged, because you no longer know how the forces are working. In that building, there was literally one column left in that whole building. When my father got to the site, there was a man very gingerly trying to dig debris off the building to uncover bodies. And my father said, "Stop. If you move that pile one more foot the whole building is going to come down." And so we worked closely with the fire and rescue teams. The whole building was basically full of, you know, classified information. So we actually had a contract with them to remove any classified materials from the building that we could locate—thousands and thousands of pieces of paper. But, it was just very heart wrenching, you know, because they were still recovering bodies right up until days before we actually brought down the building. My uncle and my father worked quite a bit in Mexico City in '85 following the earthquake and they had helped pull bodies out there. So, it's not like it's ever old hat, but they'd been there before.

NOVA: Are there any more Loizeaux kids getting ready to join the family business?

SL: Oh yeah. There's me, and then I have a 19-year old sister who also works for the company, Adrienne. And then the twins, 15, a boy and a girl, Jason and Devon. And they both come out and work on some jobs, but you know, they're still 15.

NOVA: Do you get a thrill watching a building fall?

SL: Oh sure. I mean you really don't ever lose it. Your perspective changes. When I first started traveling with my Dad at fifteen, sixteen years old, I used to be awestruck. But you sort of go from that awestruck feeling to where you understand how the structure is coming down and you're watching for certain things—counting the delays or waiting for a part of the building to kick out or waiting for it to pull forward. So it does change, but it's always a rush.

Photo (6) of Sands Hotel demolition copyright © Controlled Demolition, Inc. - Phoenix, Maryland - USA

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