Making an Impact
In 1957, Jack Loizeaux first used explosives to implode a building. Four decades and three generations later, the Loizeauxs—the first family of demolition—still use Jack's revolutionary method to blast structures all over the world.

B Y - L A U R A - W E X L E R

At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, a Ryder truck filled with approximately 4,000 pounds of cow manure and diesel fuel exploded in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The bomb left 168 people dead, 490 injured. And, as a reminder of the worst incident of domestic terrorism in the nation's history, it left standing the sad and terrible shell of a building.

Three days later, government officials called Controlled Demolition, Inc. (CDI) in suburban Baltimore and asked for help. Doug Loizeaux, 48, flew to Oklahoma City, where one look told him the Murrah building was in danger of collapsing.

In the ensuing days, Doug Loizeaux coordinated the removal of government files from the Murrah building and the salvage of its granite for a memorial. When no more could be done, he and his crew placed less than 150 pounds of explosives at 420 locations throughout the structure.


Left: "Whatever man has built, I can destroy in a week," says Jack Loizeaux, a '40 forestry grad.

Right: When Jack began imploding buildings in the '50s, he bought his dynamite at the hardware store and loaded it into his truck to drive to blasts. Today, explosives demolition is a full-scale industry with regulations galore.

Top of page: In 1972, Jack Loizeaux imploded Atlantic City's massive Traymore Hotel in two phases, taking down the center section first, then finishing off the two wings. In the series above, Jack turns the hotel's Ocean Wing into rubble.

At 7 a.m. on May 23, 1995, a blast once again rocked the Murrah building (see photo sequence on cover). But this time it was implosion, not explosion—a falling-down instead of a blowing-up. Right angles went curvy. Concrete and brick moved together as in a wave. Shape and form and interior space folded in upon themselves.

Jack Loizeaux (BS '40) knew already. He'd watched it on TV in his Maryland home. He'd watched as a citizen, with a sense of relief, and as a parent, with pride. Mostly he watched as a pioneer blaster, awed by the fact that something he created had evolved, and would continue to evolve, in ways he never imagined.

The Loizeaux family holds world records for imploding the tallest building, the longest bridge, and the most buildings in a single sequence. They have blasted more than 7,000 structures in the past 40 years, and they've done it by following a solitary guiding principle, a mantra passed from Jack's father all the way to his grandchildren: Depend on gravity. Gravity is faithful.

When Jack Loizeaux was a boy, his father conducted an experiment in the family's Maryland orchard one summer. Instead of digging all the tree-planting holes by hand, he put a half-stick of dynamite in a few. Not only did the dynamite complete the hard labor of digging in a matter of seconds, it pulverized the soil and provided drainage. At year's end, young Jack noted the results: the dynamite trees had grown six inches, the hand-dug trees just an inch.

Despite his father's warning that he wasn't college material, Jack enrolled in UGA's forestry school in 1935. One day during a surveying class, an engineer came out to the agricultural campus with a truckload of dynamite and a plan to divert the Oconee River away from a seedling nursery constantly threatened by the river's flooding.

Jack and his fellow classmates placed the dynamite into the ground, Jack noting with unease the absence of blasting caps on the dynamite. When the time came, he was chosen to twist the detonator.

"We were all standing on the leeward side, so we got covered with mud!" says Jack, 83, laughing as he relaxes on the deck of the log cabin home in Towson, Md., he built himself. "But in 20 minutes we had straightened the river and gotten a nice, tapered bank. I saw then the awesome power of dynamite."

At UGA, Jack met Athens native Freddie Hill (BS '39). After graduation they married and returned to Maryland, where Jack was hired as a Baltimore City forester. "Those were the days of the Dutch Elm disease," he says. "I brought the first chainsaw east and I'd cut the stump low, drill holes, and put sticks of dynamite in the holes to splinter the stumps. I was fascinated."

Word got out about the young tree man with the dynamite, and in 1952, Jack got a call requesting he demolish five tall brick chimneys at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. Intimidated by the switch from trees to man-made structures, Jack relied on what he knew. He decided which direction he wanted the chimneys to fall, drilled holes in that side of each, and placed the dynamite. When he pressed the button, those chimneys fell like trees, right where Jack wanted them.

From there, Jack moved on to blasting foundations, coal tipples, and the low bridges being cleared to make way for President Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System. "Once I was driving across Kent Narrows Bridge [in Maryland] and I saw a conventional wrecking crew preparing to demolish the bridge," Jack remembers. "I stopped and told them I could go in, drill it, and in a few days, I could make gravel of that bridge."


The Loizeaux family has left its imprint on landscapes throughout the U.S. Pictured from left to right are the 1980 demolition of an Ohio River bridge, the 1995 implosion of eight 13-story buildings at Philadelphia's Raymond Rosen housing project, and the splashy 1995 implosion of the Dunes Hotel Tower in Las Vegas.

In 1957, the Washington, D.C. city planner asked Jack to blast an eight-story apartment building on the plot of land where the U.S. State Department stands today.

"Son, can you bring it down?" the city planner asked him.

"They build apartment buildings in cities," Jack said. "No way."

What Jack meant is he'd give it a try. He loaded all the explosives into the building's basement and pressed the button. The building dropped five feet. He loaded more explosives in and tried again. The building sank lower. Finally, on the third try, the building fell. That descent, though imperfect, signaled a new era for both Jack Loizeaux and the demolition world.

"Nobody that I know of used dynamite on a building before Jack," says demolition consultant Herb Duane, the president of Duane Corporation, a conventional demolition firm. "I call Jack the Demolition Magician. He was revolutionary."

Dynamite certainly wasn't new; in the late 19th century, Alfred Nobel created dynamite from nitroglycerin; wisely anticipating the fear such a product would inspire, he named it "safety blasting powder." But explosives had largely been used in massive jobs like mining and highway-building. Jack was the first to use small amounts of explosives to weaken a structure's integrity, thereby causing the structure to fall by its own weight—to implode rather than to explode. He was the first to prove that implosion could be a cheap, safe, and efficient way to demolish buildings that had outlived their usefulness.

Because it was (and is) difficult for people to hear the word "explosives" and not imagine danger, in those early years Jack not only had to work out the science of implosion, he had to mount a public relations campaign. Fortunately, Freddie Loizeaux was a whiz at it, says Jack's granddaughter, Stacey Loizeaux, CDI's media and special effects coordinator, as well as a licensed blaster.

"She had this gift for convincing people that this was a perfectly safe thing to do," says 29-year-old Stacey. "My grandfather was still extremely hesitant about taking on some of these projects, but she was so gung-ho about it that she kind of pushed him into it."

Freddie, who died in 1993, was able to convince both city governments and building owners to implode rather than to wield the wrecking ball. Even so, Jack had to provide seismograph readings after his blasts to convince nearby residents of the lack of quake. To ease one homeowner's fears, he placed a ten-penny nail on a windowsill in her house, betting her it would stay put during the blast. It did.

Jack brought a basic knowledge of construction, engineering, and physics to his new science of implosion. More important, though, he brought the fascination and conviction of a true believer. Long before anyone else, he had faith in the power of explosives to help gravity do what it wants to do anyway: pull things down.

This faith was pushed to its limits when, in 1963, the U.S. Navy asked Jack to blast its Texas Tower radar platform, a three-story behemoth standing on three 180-foot tall concrete legs in the ocean 140 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. The prospect of blasting it was hard enough, but as an added twist Jack had to ensure the demolished structure didn't sink to the ocean floor, where it would further impede shipping.

Jack filled the building with a shipload of Styrofoam so that once he knocked the legs out, the platform would float. For his plan to work, though, he had to place the explosives so the structure would dive toward the water after implosion; if it hit flat, it would shatter and sink. To complicate things even more, Hurricane Hazel brewed up just as Jack was loading his explosives. He left the radar platform in a rowboat amid 40-foot waves and, from a distance, watched as his plan worked to a tee.

"I risked my whole future blasting that tower, but I did it," Jack says proudly.

To ease one homeowner's fears, Jack Loizeaux placed a ten-penny nail on a windowsill in her house, betting her it would stay put during his blast. It did.

Like any prophet, Jack quickly made converts of his family. Freddie got her blasting license, and sons Mark and Doug started helping out as soon as they could lift Jack's tool box. Mark's daughter, Stacey, began going on jobs with her father, uncle, and grandfather at age eight. On growing up as a Loizeaux, she says, "I think it would be like growing up as one of the Flying Wallendas."

"My dad was always gone before sunrise and back after dark. He was a six-day-a-week guy. Sundays he didn't work, because he spent time in church," says 51-year-old Mark who, at 19, became the youngest licensed blaster in the U.S. "About the only time I could see him was to travel with him."

Just 10 years after Jack imploded his first building, the Loizeauxs were getting big jobs all over the country. They blasted three buildings in Dallas in 1969; a housing project in St. Louis in 1972; a 32-story apartment building in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1972; the massive Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City in 1972; the Biltmore Hotel in Oklahoma City in 1977; and a high-rise apartment building in Saudi Arabia in 1981. In between, they shot bridges and piers and chimneys, trailed always by awestruck reporters who penned headlines like, "Thar she goes!"; "Going, going, going, gone!"; and, simply, "Boom!"

BIG BOOMS

Tallest and biggest building ever imploded—J.L. Hudson Department Store, Detroit, Michigan. Blasted Oct. 24, 1998.

Most buildings shot in a single implosion sequence—Villa Panamericana and Las Orquideas, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Blasted Aug. 16, 1998.

Tallest man-made structure felled by explosives—Omega Radio Tower, Patagonia, Argentina. Blasted June 23, 1998.

Longest bridge ever imploded—Sunshine Skyway Bridge, St. Petersburg, Florida. Blasted 1991-1993.

BIG SCREEN BOOMS

"Atlantic City," 1980
"Lethal Weapon 3," 1992
"Demolition Man," 1993
"Mars Attacks," 1996
"Enemy of the State," 1998

In 1986, at the age of 73, Jack turned the family business over to Mark and Doug. "I'd like to be in it, but I'm happy to see my boys work," says Jack, who now turns the quiet ferocity he used to blast buildings on tennis opponents 20 years his junior. Though he's officially retired, Jack still visits the family's blasting sites, where it isn't unusual for an explosives hopeful to request his autograph.

"Make no mistake, he's still part of it," says Mark, CDI's president. "All we ever talk about is business. We still ask his opinion. We say, 'Do you remember when you did the Texas Tower?' We go back and draw on what is a huge repository of knowledge." Besides watching his family work, Jack has the satisfaction of seeing—or, in most cases, not seeing—his mark everywhere around him. Once, while blasting a bridge in Florida, Jack decided he'd leave part of the bridge for local people to use as a fishing pier.

"I care about people and these folks depend on fishing to survive," he says. "Everywhere in the world they're now leaving bridges for fishing piers. I started that. Isn't that wonderful?"

"Isn't that wonderful?" is Jack's signature phrase, one that aptly demonstrates his zeal for life. He says he's thrilled with his 83 years so far; he just wishes he had 83 more. Then he'd still be climbing chimneys, blasting with his family, nudging gravity along.

In the years since Jack's retirement, the Loizeauxs haven't slowed the pace he set. In 1991, they imploded the Old Orlando City Hall; in 1995, the 356-foot tall Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas; in 1996, the Hacienda Hotel, also in Las Vegas; and in 1997, the Omni Arena in Atlanta. From 1995 to 1996, CDI blasted 23 high-rise federal housing projects around the world. Last year, CDI's crew worked 49 of 52 weekends, sometimes blasting three different structures on three different continents in one day.

"I don't think my father knew how much impact his initial ideas would have on the industry," says Mark. "We change cityscapes, we change neighborhoods, we remove pockets of urban decay that permit healing."

CDI acts as special consultants to the Army Corps of Engineers, the FBI, Housing and Urban Development, and the U.S. State Department, among others. They have aided in the removal of Soviet radar facilities in Latvia and, as part of the nonproliferation and disarmament fund formed under the START treaty, they help remove Soviet-installed nuclear weaponry from former Soviet states.

In the wake of last year's U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, U.S. government officials tracked down Mark on his cellular phone in Puerto Rico, telling him CDI was on standby. Two days later they called back, saying there was nothing even the Loizeauxs could do.

"I'm not going to lie to you and say that when I hear an earthquake or a bomb has hit that it doesn't immediately cross my mind that we may be going there," says Stacey.

Besides calls from contractors and building owners, Stacey fields at least one inquiry daily from TV and movie directors, for whom CDI provides a range of services—from scouting the perfect abandoned building, to selling footage of previous blasts, to customizing an implosion for a particular movie scene. CDI's work can be seen in "Lethal Weapon 3," "Demolition Man," and "Mars Attacks." Last year, Stacey and her crew rigged a fireball and implosion in a Baltimore factory for a sequence in the action flick "Enemy of the State," starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman.

More than 10 full-length documentaries and 100 TV shows have featured the Loizeaux family, as well as hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. "I haven't seen your family on TV in the past three days," one of Jack's tennis pals recently kidded him.

As demolition consultant Herb Duane says, "We sometimes call the Discovery Channel the Loizeaux Channel."

"We change cityscapes, we change neighborhoods, we remove pockets of urban decay that permit healing."
—Mark Loizeaux

With the fall of Detroit's 435-foot tall J.L. Hudson building in October 1998, Jack's descendants shattered his world record for the tallest building imploded.

On a hot September morning in 1998, Stacey stands at the base of a 185-foot chimney in rural Maryland. She breaks a stick of dynamite in half, packs it into a hole in the structure's wall, and connects it to another stick of dynamite with bright yellow detonation cord. She handles the dynamite cautiously but not fearfully—the real danger of explosives demolition, she says, has its source not in the explosives, but in the blast sites themselves, boobytraps full of loose concrete and unsturdy floorboards.

Though far less challenging than the housing project she and her father, Mark, imploded the previous month in Puerto Rico—in which they brought 17 buildings down in a single sequence—blasting this chimney has historical resonance. The explosives are more sophisticated, the regulations more plentiful, but the laws of physics have not altered in 40 years: Stacey will take down this stack in the same way her grandfather blasted his first chimney in 1952.

At 8 a.m. Dave Woodward, the chimney's owner, comes by to check on preparations. "I have nightmares about this stack. I think my nightmares are about to be over," says Woodward. In a few hours he and his teenage daughter will walk through this empty field, their shoes dusted with his chimney's remains.

Woodward's chimney becomes dust because, at the push of a button, dynamite moves through its walls at the rate of 16,000 feet per second. It falls into the empty field, rather than onto the abutting warehouse, because of the placement and the timing of the explosive charges. Both are essential to the Loizeauxs' choreography.

That choreography is at work a month later when, at 4:47 p.m. on Oct. 24, 1998, Detroit mayor Dennis Archer presses the red button. A crowd of 20,000—and the second and third generations of Loizeaux blasters—watch the 435-foot tall J.L. Hudson building fill with smoke, sway, and begin its wavy descent.

On TV in his Maryland home, Jack Loizeaux watches as his family turns another mammoth structure into rubble. He watches as they set the world's record for the tallest building ever imploded, eclipsing the record he set 26 years ago.


Stacey, Mark, and Doug—with some help from "Daddy Jack"—imploded Las Vegas's Landmark Hotel in 1995. To learn more about the Loizeaux family, visit their web site.

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