WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- On a warm, sunny Saturday morning near the crystal blue waters of Lake Worth, the grand old Pennsylvania Hotel shuddered briefly from the shock of 500 explosions and melted into the earth.
The center of the elegant, eight-story building collapsed. Then the tile-roofed north and south wings tumbled onto the ruins in a rumbling concrete waterfall. A few seconds later, in a cloud of light brown dust, it was all over. Five thousand people cheered, and the Loizeaux brothers took their bows.
The ultimate performance art.
It's an act the family from Phoenix, Md., has taken around the world for 35 years. The Loizeauxs can make a building dance. They can make it jump. They can make it gracefully collapse into itself. They can make a 1,400-ton bridge spin like a ballerina.
Their tiny northern Baltimore County company, Controlled Demolition Inc., has blown down or imploded more than 5,000 buildings, smokestacks and bridges. Today the firm accounts for more than half of the world's explosive demolitions.
"No one in my family has ever done anything constructive," jokes J. Mark Loizeaux, president of the firm his father founded 35 years ago. But he and his brother, Doug Loizeaux, the vice president, are serious about their work.
"What we are doing is artificially inducing a controlled collapse of the building," Mark Loizeaux explained. "We cajole it down using forceful persuasion. You don't tell structures what to do -- you cajole a structure to do what you want it to do."
John D. "Jack" Loizeaux, who holds a forestry degree from the University of Georgia, closed down his tree service in the 1950s to start CDI. He started by blasting tree stumps. He graduated to rocks and boulders, smokestacks and ultimately buildings.
He developed the firm's basic technique: using small amounts of explosives, strategically placed, to weaken a building to a point where it collapses into its own footprint. Technically, that means the building implodes instead of exploding.
"Gravity is everywhere. It's free to everyone," said the senior Loizeaux, a youthful 79, who is officially retired but keeps his hand in by "shooting" a smokestack now and then. "It's an awesome power that's available out there if you know how to control it. We're the only ones taking advantage of it."
Persuading the public and potential customers that explosives could be just as safe and ultimately cheaper than conventional demolition was difficult.
"There is an innate fear people feel when they hear the term explosives," said Doug Loizeaux. "It has negative connotations with terrorist bombings. You've got to go in and allay those fears.
"Anytime a building is taken down with explosives, whether it's our company or not, the result leaves an impact on the whole industry. You have to convince people you can do it and then do the job right."
The big break
CDI came to the world's attention in 1972, when the company shot the giant Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J., believed to be the largest building demolished with explosives. That year, the trade magazine Engineering News-Record put Jack Loizeaux the cover and wrote that he "pioneered the use of explosives to demolish just about everything built by man."
Mark was the first son to get into the act. At 8, he shot his first smokestack. At 19, he left college temporarily to take charge of the company when his father injured his back trying to help a motorist stranded in the snow.
He became one of the youngest licensed blasters in the world, as well as earning a business degree from the University of Tennessee. Doug, who graduated with a mass communications degree from Towson State University, followed his brother into CDI.
With just 14 employees, CDI makes headlines worldwide -- and movies as well. CDI jobs provide realistic backgrounds for action films. When Mel Gibson and Danny Glover dashed from a building seconds before it came crashing down in "Lethal Weapon 3," they were taking advantage of CDI's demolition of a hotel in Orlando, Fla.
The Pennsylvania Hotel had no Hollywood connections, but it was a sticky job that demanded both brothers' attention.
Built in 1926, the Pennsylvania once was a hostel for the rich and famous. Elvis Presley stayed there in 1956, according to local lore.
In middle age, the building was sold to the Carmelite Sisters, who used it as a nursing home for elderly nuns until they built a home next door several years ago.
The Pennsylvania's very location, only 14 feet from the sisters' new home, made demolition problematic. Conventional wrecking balls and cranes would have required at least three months of pounding, drilling, yanking, breaking and crushing. That would have produced far too much noise and dust for the home's elderly and ailing residents.
Cobra Demolitions, the Florida company hired to take down the building, contacted CDI last month. They determined that it would take CDI six weeks to prepare the building and five seconds to turn it into a pile of rubble. Hauling away debris would take another 30 days.
Blueprints and reality
Doug Loizeaux was the first to fly to Florida to compare the actual structure with the blueprints he had received. The brothers have learned over the years that blueprints and reality rarely match -- they'll always find a stairwell here, an elevator shaft there, a few extra columns. After the initial review, Doug called his brother for a second opinion.
"If we can empathize with the structure, if we can get to know it, then that building is as good as down," Doug said. "Every ounce of energy of the building's kinetic energy, every nail, each brick, is at our disposal."
This is nothing one can learn from an engineering class, computer or teaching manual. It's a mix of science, experience and intuition.
A construction paradox
Paradoxically, the Pennsylvania was a problem because it wasn't built well at the outset. Its concrete crumbled like charcoal, and the floors never were properly reinforced. That meant the hotel had to be partially rebuilt so that CDI could demolish it.
Steel cables, three-quarters of an inch thick and 50 feet long, were wrapped around the weak south side columns and pulled tight like a banjo string. These would force the columns toward the center, away from the building next door.
There was no basement, so workers had to excavate the ground floor to accommodate the debris. The building was cut in half so that the sides would rotate toward the center and collapse inward. Holes were drilled into columns, walls were knocked out and stairwells were reduced to rubble.
About a week before the implosion, Mark flew down to examine the building from top to bottom. He mentally compared the Pennsylvania to demolitions past, and the observations resulted in a slight change of plans for loading the building with dynamite -- a job the brothers handled themselves.
Placing the charges
They placed small charges in strategically drilled holes in 230 columns on the first, second, fourth and sixth floors. Some columns had as many as five charges, others as few as two.
"The key to safety and success is information," Mark said. "As you work in the building, you develop an understanding, a closeness to it. As you develop that closeness, you get a feel for which columns need to be loaded and how they need to be loaded with explosives to make it fall in a certain direction."
The brothers inserted a blasting cap into each stick of dynamite, then centered the charges in the holes with small sandbags. They connected the charges in each column with green and red wires, then connected wires from each column to the others.
Every column was tightly wrapped twice -- with steel fencing and thick, black fabric. That would allow gases released from the dynamite explosion to escape while keeping the debris from flying.
Altogether, they used 121 pounds of dynamite in 520 separate charges, wired for eight series of explosions.
By 6:30 a.m. Feb. 18, Mark and Doug arrived at the guarded site for a final inspection. With Tom Doud, one of CDI's field operators, they checked the wiring on each floor to make sure workers hadn't broken any connections.
Mark walked the entire building from top to bottom. He checked for vagrants who might have unwittingly selected the wrong place to spend the night and made last-minute adjustments -- attaching old wooden doors and sheets of corrugated steel to key columns to keep debris from being hurled like shrapnel.
Meanwhile, Doug worked with 13 police officers to cordon off an area of two to three blocks around the building.
A half-hour before the final countdown, Mark checked the resistance levels in the wires linking the eight series of charges one last time. Satisfied that the electricity would flow evenly, he wired them to the main "bus line," or detonating wire, and wrapped each connection with black electrical tape.
Twenty minutes until show time.
Keeping it safe
Suddenly, Doug's frustrated voice crackled over a walkie-talkie: "We're having trouble securing the perimeter."
More than 5,000 people had come for what was hoped to be a low-key event, and dozens of them were wandering in the restricted area -- determined to get a closer look.
"People just don't seem to understand that we're working with explosives. They don't understand that it can be dangerous," Doug said.
In CDI's history, only two people have sustained injuries in an implosion. Both were minor, and both happened because spectators had wandered inside the safety cordon, the brothers say.
Finally, the blast zone was cleared, leaving only the president of Cobra Demolition, who would push the detonator, and Mark Loizeaux, working the video cameras to capture the Pennsylvania's last seconds.
At 11:14 a.m. -- for the first time since CDI arrived to take care of business -- there was eerie silence in the building. There were no drills punching holes in walls, no workers dragging steel fencing, no tap-tap-tapping of explosives into columns.
Police sirens began to wail. Voices clicked on and off the walkie-talkies.
"Mark, are you clear?"
There was a short prayer from Mark thanking the good Lord for gravity and asking for success.
Then the charges went off. Five seconds later, the Pennsylvania was gone -- turned into a choking dust cloud and 2 1/2 -story pile of concrete and twisted steel. The crowd roared its approval.
The nursing home next door was untouched. The production was a success. And CDI had changed another skyline.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime event," Mark said. "You can't put the building back up and do it again. It's the power of the planet."
"It's the good Lord and gravity," his father said. "And with my two boys, it doesn't get any better."