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Sign of the times: Sparrows Point blast furnace demolished

The most visible remnant of Sparrows Point's steelmaking past was imploded Wednesday afternoon.

The detonation of 94 explosive charges brought the main blast furnace at Sparrows Point tumbling down in seconds Wednesday, putting a final exclamation point on generations of steelmaking in Baltimore.

The 32-story L Blast Furnace — once the heart of the Bethlehem Steel operation here — toppled over at 1:15 p.m. Support beams collapsed, black smoke billowed and the towering structure was reduced to just another pile of rubble on a 3,100-acre landscape of debris.

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Bit by bit, remnants of the mill's steelmaking history are being demolished to make way for the redevelopment of Sparrows Point into a modern industrial campus.

"It's kind of heartbreaking," said Scott Lang, 45, who spent years in the furnace digging out the iron slag pits. "The bright side of it is that this will hopefully bring more jobs."

For more than a century, Sparrows Point was a bustle of activity, with thousands of workers engaged in the hot, dirty and often dangerous work of making steel beams, nails and rolled steel for cars and appliances.

For most of that time, the mill was operated by Bethlehem Steel, but after a series of ownership changes, it closed in 2012 when then-owner RG Steel went bankrupt.

Two years later, Sparrows Point Terminal LLC bought the land, promised a $48 million environmental cleanup and announced plans to redevelop the site. Sparrows Point Terminal has the financial backing of local firm Redwood Capital Investments.

For the vision to become a reality, the furnace had to go.

"It's sad to see it go," said Jeff Opert, 55, a third-generation steelworker who now works with Lang at MCM Industrial Services, the company responsible for tearing down the old mill buildings.

Opert once welded pipes to keep the blast furnace running. From the top, he said, you could see clear across Baltimore.

Malcolm Addison, 60, worked in maintenance at Sparrows Point from 1977 until 2012. His job took him all over the site to keep the machinery churning out steel. Now he's doing the reverse with MCM.

"We were here to keep it running. To help bring it down is a different ballgame," he said. "It's the last of the plant. I spent a lot of time down here. ... It's progress, I guess."

Robert Meekins, who said he worked at "the Point" for "only" 17 years, was among a small group of former workers who talked their way onto the property to watch the furnace brought down.

"I'm sad," said Meekins, 60. "All the while that everything was still here, we had hope they'd find a buyer."

Baltimore County Councilman Todd Crandell, who grew up in Dundalk, remembered the L Blast Furnace as a landmark whenever he crossed the Key Bridge and headed home. His father worked at the mill for 49 years.

"The L furnace itself and some of the other buildings were really icons," he said. "Beth Steel meant so much to so many people. There is an emotional attachment to the property."

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Bill Barry, a retired director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus, likened the loss of the L Blast Furnace to the death of a relative.

"It's a wonderful way of life and a lot of people miss the base of it, which was Sparrows Point because it supported everybody," he said. "This was a city on the hill that has gone away. There's nothing close to replacing it."

Given the deep emotional bond of the community to the mill, Sparrows Point Terminal officials were concerned that the implosion would draw crowds. They kept the details under wraps until just hours before. Access to the site was strictly controlled.

The technical work to bring down the blast furnace was designed by Controlled Demolition Inc. of Baltimore County. The furnace was two separate structures — a 320-foot-tall main furnace that weighed 8 million pounds and an exoskeleton 200 feet tall that weighed 3 million pounds.

In recent months, crews from Controlled Demolition and MCM removed stairwells, elevator shafts and other appendages. The base of the furnace was cut away and temporary support beams installed.

David Mardigan, president of MCM, said former steelworkers had a hand in bringing down the blast furnace. He said the former Bethlehem Steel welders are among the best he's ever hired.

"That work is so high-quality; it's a shame to dynamite it," he said.

Explosive charges were placed on the supports to force them to crumble and tip the furnace sideways. Though the charges were set off in a series of 12 explosions, it sounded as one boom that could be heard across the Patapsco River in Pasadena.

As the explosives were set off, traffic was briefly stopped on nearby Route 151 and the Key Bridge.

The implosion went "exactly as planned," said Mark Loizeaux, president of Controlled Demolition. Loizeaux said monitors showed the noise and vibration levels were within allowable levels.

County officials cheered the implosion as a sign of the progress at Sparrows Point. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has said the site is attractive because it has industrial zoning and offers access to the water, highways and rail lines.

"Today marks an ending and also an important beginning for bringing new 21st-century jobs and new development back to the Point," he said.

As demolition continues, Sparrows Point Terminal is recruiting possible tenants. None have been announced, but FedEx filed paperwork with the county government seeking approval to build a potential distribution hub on the property.

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