Ensuring A Safe Demolition

By David Huey | September 28, 2010

Demolition, by definition, is an inherently unsafe endeavor: "of or pertaining to tearing down or demolishing" and "to destroy or ruin (a building or other structure), especially on purpose; tear down; raze." Looking over the 6.5 acres of land in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, future site of the new $175-million headquarters for insurance company Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, that becomes clear. Between 11th and 14th streets on the north side of Grand Avenue — the "West Gateway" area — are wasteland and the rubble that was once an office building. The last two standing buildings (a dry cleaner and welding shop) shudder as another wall falls in a cloud of dust. They seem to know their turn is next.

Yet, as Dan "Wreckingball" Marx, operator/foreman for Metro Demolition (formally Metro Wrecking), of Des Moines, rips a girder free, he is thinking about (and living by) the company's internal motto: "Safety Begins with You."

Metro's website reads, "Demolition is a challenging business, but we here at Metro Wrecking (Demolition) believe that knowledge is the key to minimizing the dangers, both to people and to adjacent property." Marx, with 24 years of experience, several certifications in operating equipment and safety, goes about his work thinking about protecting both life and adjoining property.

Metro was started back in 1995 by Kurt Pagliai, after he worked several years in the demolition industry. Running his company from his home, he started with mostly residential and small-scale commercial projects located in the Des Moines metro area. Now, Metro operates out of a 22,000-square-foot facility located on 5.5 acres in Des Moines. Over the years, they have expanded the size of their jobs and the area of service. You can find the Metro Demolition logo on equipment in Iowa, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, and Minnesota. They are now considered one of the largest demolition contractors in the Midwest. Metro's client list includes John Deere, McAninch Corporation, Mosanto, and Regency Home Builders. For the last couple of months, Metro has been working with the Weitz Company, general contractor for the Wellmark project.

Today, Marx and Joel Boelling, another operator/foreman, are tearing down their fifth building, after being on the site in as many weeks. This two-story structure has been stubborn — the two have been attacking it for more than a week and it will be another week before all the rubble is cleared away and the deep basement is filled. Once the last two buildings are down, Marx will move on to an obsolete concrete powerhouse located in South Des Moines, near the airport.

Both operators are using excavators mounted with grapples, even though "Wreckingball" is also certified in crane operation. Although every demolition is unique, their strategy is fairly uniform. They work both sides of the building, starting with the "worst" side and working toward the "best." The formula sounds simple, but is backed up by the training and experience of the two operators.

Marx says he starts each job by "figuring the best way to bring the structure down. First," he continues, "find the weak parts of the building, visualizing how to wreck it. Check for hazards and other concerns, like power poles and adjoining property. You don't want to knock it [the building] down on other's property, or out into the street. You also want to look for large AC units that might roll off as the roof tilts.

"The first thing I do," Marx continues, "is knock a hole to the basement so the debris fills the basement. This building had a deep basement, about 8-feet deep, so we had to be careful." And always, he stressed, think safety. That suits Scott Tursi, senior project superintendent for Weitz, just fine.

"Weitz is very safety conscious," Tursi remarked. "Metro does a good job complying with our safety requirements. They have all their certifications — way above OSHA regulations. It's always good to work with Metro."

Tursi acknowledges that the Wellmark job is "a very large project — very challenging and very fun. It's always great to work with good contractors." He admitted that they're a little ahead of schedule and hesitant to brag this early in the construction. The 500,000-square-foot complex, which includes a 2,000-car parking garage, is slated to be completed in the last quarter of 2010. There are many things that could come up to slow the process: They will be doing more hazardous material testing when they clear off the demolished dry cleaner building.

The Metro crew can take some of the credit for gaining a few days on their schedule. When possible, they work from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Iowa's winter lingered into a wet spring, with plenty of snow and rain. A little rain (or snow) doesn't bother Marx and Boelling — it actually holds the dust down. Too much of either starts to cut down on visibility. Keeping track of each other, and what's happening around the site, is both a productivity and a safety issue.

As his nickname hints, Marx started his operating experience as a crane operator. He first became union certified for crane operation (and safety) years ago. That included 15 hours in the classroom before taking the written test and a three-hour "practical." Boelling is union certified as well.

They both work for Chris Pagliai, vice president of operations ("a glorified project manager," he jokes) who runs the company. Metro Wrecking just recently changed its name to Metro Demolition in April of 2007, when they became part of the holding company, The Rasmussen Group. While they have a strong reputation for bridge demolition, Metro is not just a "total destruction" demolition contractor. They also handle interior demolition and partial demolition projects. Pagliai agreed that they are considered one of the largest interior demolition contractors in Iowa.

Another Rasmussen subsidiary, the Jensen Construction Company, is also well known, having been in business since 1912. Jensen handles bridges, structures and steel erection, dams, railroad structures, harbor ports and dock facilities, site development, concrete and steel fabrication, and other projects. All of The Rasmussen Group companies have a strong commitment to safety — understanding that safe job sites are good for the employees, the company and their clients.

The certification that Marx and Boelling earned is all part of Metro's commitment to responsible operation. They have OSHA-certified trainers on staff, and all operators and key personnel are Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) Standard certified. All Metro personnel go through rigorous safety training.

That emphasis on safety is one reason Wreckingball Marx has worked nearly a quarter of a century in the demolition business without a serious accident or injury. Destructive, yes, but well thought out and carefully carried out: the Metro Demolition way.