By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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The 72-year-old smokestack that was all that remained of the historic Peninsula Plywood mill defied the explosives that had been packed into its base — and was finally felled Monday like a Douglas fir by men with saws and torches.
In what will be remembered as a colossal letdown for thousands of spectators, the blast — a loud and smoky "pop" — left the 175-foot, 1,000-ton stack still standing thanks to a web of rebar (reinforcement steel) that was laced into its concrete and bricks.
Crews using huge electrical saws and cutting torches slowly bit through the rebar at the base and, with the aid of a hydraulic jack, finally toppled the landmark at 6:13 p.m., 2 hours 43 minutes after the demolition button had been pushed.
It collapsed on the now-leveled mill area, sending up a huge cloud of dust.
'A lot of steel in there'
Port of Port Angeles Public Works Director Randy Brackett, who was in constant contact with the contractor, could not say what went wrong, why the explosives hadn't taken down the tower.
“I don't think there's been any final analysis,” he said. “The bottom line is that it didn't go down like they thought it would. There is a lot of steel in there.”
One of the shareholders of the original PenPly, Vernon Reidel, 70, said he wasn't surprised that the stack didn't fall.
Reidel spent many hours on the stack's inspection platform, testing gases being emitted, from 1960 to 1971.
“It's a tough stack; it's pretty thick,” Reidel said. “There was one just like it, the same design, in Hiroshima, and the atomic bomb didn't take it down.”
After a 10-second public countdown, the detonation button was pushed as planned at 3:30 p.m.
The tower shook from the explosives — but remained defiantly erect.
The thousands of spectators at the west end of the Port Angeles downtown area and on the bluffs overlooking the mill site waited for about 15 minutes before deciding that something had gone wrong. They got back in their cars, or walked away. Police allowed traffic to flow again past the site.
The Wallace Technical Blasting crew determined that “their next attack was by cutting steel.”
An orange excavator with a big claw tore off the rubber blast-insulation around the base of the concrete monolith, and the men went to work.
“But it didn't go until they were able to lift it with an electric hydraulic press, or a jack, I should say,” Brackett said.
“That appeared to lift it about two to three inches on the back side.”
“So it was a delay,” he added. “It's wasn't exactly what we expected, but nobody got hurt. So it's considered a success. Now we're waiting for pizza.”
Only a few persons were still in the protected spectator area when the tower suddenly fell in the twilight at 6:13 p.m. — and it caught them by surprise.
Paula Gustafson and Alisa Proctor didn't get the video and images they hoped to capture.
“I wish they'd given us a little better warning,” said Paula Gustafson of Port Angeles.
“My daughter worked here and she lives in Alaska and she wanted me to video it for her. So I missed it.”
Onlookers had packed the site at 439 Marine Drive and adjacent hilltops overlooking it to witness what Mayor Cherie Kidd said before the button push was the end of an era and a new beginning for the city.
Since 1941, the site was home to Peninsula Plywood, ITT Rayonier, KPly and a reincarnated PenPly until the mill closed for good in 2011.
Kidd, chosen to push remote-control buttons to trigger a countdown to the blast, said she was disappointed.
“I pushed my buttons just right, heard the boom, saw the smoke,” Kidd said.
When the stack didn't fall, Kidd stayed at the site well after most of the onlookers at the observation site had departed.
“I was so excited. It was the coolest thing I've done as mayor,” she said.
Area now goes into clean-up mode
The stack — containing 4 inches of concrete covering inner layers of brick and fiberglass — was the last remaining structure on the port-owned land, which is expected to be cleaned up by 2017 and redesignated for marine trades.
Sixth-grader Thomas Reynolds, 12, who with preschooler Jason Williams, 5, won a port-sponsored coloring contest for the honor of pressing the button that started a one-minute countdown to detonation, was among the disappointed spectators.
“I wanted to see it fall,” Thomas said.
“I don't think they put enough dynamite [in the base of the stack].
“But they made stuff pretty hard back in the old days.”
Rhine Demolition LLC of Tacoma is in charge of leveling the 19-acre mill site under a $1.6 million contract with the Port of Port Angeles, which owns the property.
Wallace Technical Blasting Inc. of Woodland was in charge of toppling the stack.
What's left of the smokestack — the resulting pile of concrete — will be broken up and taken to an as-yet-undetermined site.
Rhine will salvage the rebar.
Most of the stack's remains will be gone by Friday, with Rhine slated to complete the project by May 3.
A half-hour ceremony preceded Monday afternoon's button push.
In addition to Kidd, speakers included state Department of Ecology Olympic Region Director Sally Toteff and John Calhoun and Jim Hallett, two of the three port commissioners. Hallett emceed the ceremony.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PDN staff members John Brewer, Keith Thorpe, Arwyn Rice and Rex Wilson contributed to this report.