Iconic El Paso smelter chimneys demolished

2013-04-13T15:50:00Z Iconic El Paso smelter chimneys demolishedThe Associated Press The Associated Press
April 13, 2013 3:50 pm  • 

EL PASO, Texas — It took less than 30 seconds for the two massive smokestacks that have dominated the El Paso skyline for the past half-century to topple Saturday, taken down by two dynamite blasts.

Hundreds of camera-toting El Paso residents gathered before sunrise on the banks of the Rio Grande that overlook the former ASARCO copper and lead smelter site, ready to document the 600- and 829-foot-tall chimneys' slow downward slide.

The weekend of demolition isn't finished in the West Texas city, as there will be a controlled implosion Sunday of City Hall, which is being demolished to make room for a new Triple-A baseball stadium.

As the first rays of sun hit the tallest chimney's red-and-white stripes, two loud blasts from about 300 hundred pounds of dynamite were heard. Then, the chimneys started falling like gigantic trees being felled.

"I was expecting an implosion, that they would fall straight down," said El Paso resident Jay Butler, who admitted that during the towers' 29-second fall, he worried they might collapse over the Interstate 10. "My wife was on the other side of I-10!"

Roberto Puga, the head of the trust charged with cleaning up the smelter site, said the demolition "went very well" and the towers "fell exactly as predicted."

There was no damage to the nearby highway, railroad tracks, utilities and structures, including a historic 100-year-old adobe house a few hundred yards from where the chimneys collapsed, Puga said. All that was left of the hulking 3,000-ton smokestacks were the twisted steel-rebar cages and mounds of rubble.

The former smelter site, located few minutes from downtown and adjacent to the University of Texas at El Paso, will become a prime section of real estate. Puga estimated that the work will be finished within the next two years, and after that, 150-acre and 50-acre sites will be sold to developers.

"There has been some interest, mostly for mixed-use, high-density development," Puga said.

Revitalization efforts also play a role in demolition of the 10-story, 34-year-old City Hall.

In order for El Paso to attract the San Diego Padres' Triple-A team, it had to agree to build a $50 million stadium, which the city hopes will be the anchor for a downtown revitalization plan, attracting pedestrian traffic and businesses to the area.

Many locals had mixed emotions seeing the towers crumble Saturday. Founded in 1887 to process ore from mines in Mexico, the smelter was a vital part of El Paso's economy for much of the past century.

But it also was a major source of contamination. The plant was shut down amid complaints of polluting the area while incinerating materials from a military facility that produced chemical weapons from World War II. ASARCO filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and four years later, placed $52 million in a trust to clean up the area.

"I saw an old lady cry, I guess she had a pretty strong connection to ASARCO," El Paso resident Jon Lewis said. "There was a time when one in ten people you talked to worked at ASARCO or knew someone who did."

Three minutes before the blast, fireworks broke the calm of the early morning in the desert landscape. Shortly after, the towers fell through a thick mist of water created by 26 misters that pumped 500,000 gallons of water in order to absorb the dust caused by the collapse. Puga said they brought "clean" dirt from somewhere else to line the area where the chimneys crashed.

"It was a neat experience, but I won't miss them," said teenager Katie Herndon, who watched with her mother. She said they drive along I-10 every day and she was used to seeing the towers.

"It's going to be weird at first. But after two weeks, it's going to be 'Meh!, I don't remember seeing them,'" she said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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