Saturday, December 28, 2002

Demolition man has mixed emotions

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Stephen Bill, Project Superintendent for the O'Rourke Wrecking Co.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
He'll watch Cinergy Field implode. But during the countdown, Stephen Bill also will keep an eye on spectators.

It's not unusual, he says, to see people tremble in the moments before such an event. "They shake like they're all scared, like something is going to go wrong."

This demolition man has been working for months to make sure everything goes right. He's a superintendent who has 32 years' experience with O'Rourke Wrecking Co., the Cincinnati firm hired by Hamilton County to bring the stadium down.

In one respect, it's just another job - and not a particularly challenging one, at that - for the 52-year-old Sayler Park resident. He'd much rather demolish a tall skyscraper. "It's a little hairier," he says. "A little more exciting for me than this stadium."

But a stadium holds a special place in a city's collective memory. And this one is in Mr. Bill's hometown. As a young man, he watched the Big Red Machine play here. After he married and had three children, he brought his family to games here.

"It's a shame, in a way, to see it go. But that stadium over there" - he motions to Great American Ball Park, next door - "will probably be a hell of a lot nicer."

He was part of the crew that began razing a large chunk of Cinergy Field in August 2000 so that construction workers had room to build the new ballpark. Then last September, after Cinergy's last game, he began preparing for its implosion.

He oversaw the removal of two large sections that were too close to the new park to be imploded. He directed the crew that removed the roof panels overhanging the red seats. He and his co-workers gutted five levels of the stadium, leaving only structural steel, concrete and some pipe.

Because Mr. Bill carries the title of superintendent, one might believe he gives orders and does none of the dirty work. Not true.

"Whatever's the hardest thing to do on the job, that's what he's doing," says Jeff Sizemore, project manager for O'Rourke.

We found Mr. Bill on Cinergy's plaza level one day earlier this month, in grimy coveralls and a hard hat too soiled to call white. He was hunched, gripping a propane/oxygen cutting torch, its flame slicing partway through a thick steel column.

About 1,500 such cuts have been made throughout the stadium; Mr. Bill personally handled nearly half of those. The cuts ensure that the collapsing structural steel will rotate in the right direction; and they increase the likelihood that debris from the structure will tumble into as shallow a pile as possible, making its removal easier.

Mr. Bill also has worked closely with explosives engineer Steve Pettigrew of subcontractor D.H. Griffin Wrecking, the company whose nitroglycerin charges will trigger the implosion.

This cold, damp day, Mr. Bill walks up a ramp and looks out at the empty, barren bowl. Someone has spray painted on a column: "Blow me up now!"

He didn't grow up dreaming of being a demolition expert. But he remembers days long ago when he created impressive structures out of Tinker Toys, just to experience the thrill of knocking them down.

"That's a boy thing, I guess," he says with a chuckle. "I think they all start out a little destructive."

He was born in Denver, the second of 11 children. His family moved to Cincinnati when he was a toddler. After his 1969 graduation from Elder High School, and still unsure where life would lead, he heard about some demolition work downtown.

"I used to go down there at night. I liked to watch the crane wrecking, and the guy loading trucks. I just thought it was kind of a neat thing to watch. It looked like interesting work. Exciting."

Pat O'Rourke, the late founder of O'Rourke Wrecking, hired him. Mr. Bill became a crane operator and sat at the controls of a 35-ton machine.

"That was exciting, too. Just moving that little crane around and wrecking houses every day."

Bigger jobs came along. Parking garages. Silos. Hotels. Airport control towers. Office buildings.

The job has taken him all over the country, to cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and Boston. Sometimes he's away from home six months at a stretch, flying back on weekends when he can.

At Cinergy Field, he works with one of his sons. Stephen J. Bill recently graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in construction management. Like his dad, he's been using a cutting torch to weaken the steel at Cinergy Field.

It's almost ready now.

"These implosion jobs, right down to the last minute, it gets crazy," Mr. Bill says. "You're runnin' around trying to button up things. And then you're going to have all those crazy people that want to get close and see it."

He knows it's not so crazy, wanting to see a once-in-a-lifetime event.

"You ever see one of these things go down?" he says. "You can watch it on TV, but it's nothing like being here.

"You hear the shots (explosions), and the building sits there. It's quite a few seconds. You think it's just going to stay there. You wonder if it's prepped right."

Then the concrete and steel begin to fall. If you are a demolition man, there is no room at that moment for memories of a place, good, bad or otherwise. It's all pushed aside, and only one thing is important.

"If you put this much time into bringing something down," Stephen Bill says as a cool breeze blows through the concrete bowl, "you damn sure want it to come down.

"It should come down real nice. I'll be glad to see it on the ground. It's just good when it's down there in a pile, and you can start loading it out."


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