We all love to watch buildings being demolished - does it still give you a thrill?
Not a thrill exactly. I would call it tremendously satisfying. But you can get that same satisfaction in having a good conversation with someone, it's all about fruition. Everybody has to have something to do. And right now my brother and my family and I help people solve problems.
How did you get into the job?
I started hiding in the back of my dad's truck when I was about 6. Of course, he knew I was there, he just went along with the charade. I spent every waking moment with him when I wasn't made to go to school. I probably wasn't a very popular kid - I didn't have much time for other children, I spent summers and vacations with my dad. And in fact, this is all I've ever done, and it's been a marvellous trip, I've just loved it. I started working with him, seriously, really full-time at age 18, as did my brother Doug, my partner.
Back to the buildings, it is a very physical, visceral thing, isn't it?
It's the antithesis of a structured society's mandate for its people - calm, controlled. Demolition, particularly implosion, is visually violent. It is like jumping out of an aeroplane. It is a rush. But not so much for those immediately involved because where the spectator is thrilled with the prospect of a disaster, fear of the unknown, in my mind the building is down, it's finished before we've done a job. I already know what is going to happen. I don't get excited, I don't jump up and down. We simply do a job.
So how do you make these doomed structures dance or walk?
The secret lies in preparation - which involves many things, including learning from the last blast. So we'll drop a building and people will go to the closest bar, or go have a party, but my brother and I are out there checking out the debris, seeing how far it went, what the fragmentation is like, did it meet our expectations, what might we do differently next time. If it is a new type of construction we will have 15 different cameras on it from every imaginable angle so we can study it, you know, image by image, to see if it corresponded to the demolition plan.
Planned to the last millisecond?
Completely planned. It has to be the right job in the first place, the right explosive, the right pattern of laying the charges, and sometimes, which sounds odd, the right repairs to bring it down as we want, so no one or no other structure is harmed. And by differentially controlling the velocity of failure in different parts of the structure, you can make it walk, you can make it spin, you can make it dance. We've taken it and moved it, then dropped it or moved it, twisted it and moved it down further - and then stopped it and moved it again. We've dropped structures 15 storeys, stopped them and then laid them sideways. We'll have structures start facing north and end up going to the north-west to avoid hitting something.
What sort of explosives do you use now?
There are two types of explosive - low order and high order. Low makes a slow heaving explosion, which pushes more than it shatters. We tend to look for a shattering explosive because we want to instantaneously remove the structural integrity of whatever we're working on. So we would opt for nitroglycerin or NG-based dynamite. With a steel structure, we use something called a linear-shaped charge that concentrates the force of a high explosive called RDX. For example, it took 80 pounds of shaped charge to bring down two New York gas tanks built with 5 million pounds of steel.
You sound like you develop a sort of sixth sense for the job?
I think that's possibly true. Obviously a lot of it is technical and based on evidence - like picking the job by looking at photographs, talking to people, going there and so on. But even then, there is a feeling and some of them are not right for a number of reasons you can't always articulate - including customers who don't seem right.
But what is that sense? Do all your family have it ?
Yes - we all do to some degree, it depends rather on how long you've been doing the job. It's like...you go to a project site and somebody will say: "Where is Mark, or where is Doug?" And Stacey laughs, she says: "They're thinking." Thinking means we're three blocks away on a roof or mountaintop somewhere looking down at a structure. And we'll spend all day looking at it from this side, looking at it from this side.
And in our minds we have these little multivideo screens, and we're overlaying building layouts, demolition plans, sequences from other jobs we've done that may have a similar elevator shaft, similar stairwell. In our minds we're taking down that building with this delay path, this sequence, those floors. Then we move round - and we'll go round a building three or four times.
Do you do it together?
We do it separately. And then we see where everybody comes out. And it's amazing how close my brother Doug and I usually are, we're right there, and it's amazing how we got there, we're just thrilled. We've been doing this a long time.
Few people would be able to do that kind of reckoning, they'd rely on computers...
This is where I truly struggle and it may have something to do with bad synapses or something, I don't know what it is, but I really have a problem with it. I like computers. I think CAD [computer-aided design] has revolutionised construction and safety of structures worldwide for people in differing environments and circumstances. But CAD is used for putting things together where you specify the steel, the concrete, you assume construction methods within parameters of building codes. You assume it was put in using health and safety-approved methods and inspections. It does not allow for weathering, structural fatigue, modification, all the things that don't show up on blueprints.
Is demolition too different a world?
Yes. You move into a different category of structure that is distressed - failed yet standing structures that have failed as functioning structures because they break building codes or have been burnt, struck by lightning or tragically these days bombed or hit by planes. And it frightens me that would-be advancers of the demolition arts think that they can take a program - which is entirely contingent on the data put into it - to analyse what is going to happen in a structural system which is beyond definition. It can be bracketed, it cannot be defined. When you design a building you can specify each and every variable, but that is not the case in structures that have endured a life. Look at us, we have wrinkles, our feet are a little flatter than they were when we were younger, our butts are a little wider. We change with time, but we're better in many ways, we're smarter. But does that mean that a physician who understands anatomy can explain us?
No indeed. You must also have to develop communication skills to deal with communities that used to be just wary but post 9/11 are plain terrified of anything that even looks like destruction...
Our feelings in this country, particularly the people immediately adjacent to Ground Zero, were severely traumatised by the 9/11 incident. Their nerves are right on the surface, and they have gone through waves and pendulum swings of faith, lack of faith, trust, no trust, belief, disbelief, about what is happening surrounding the project. It impacts them politically, it impacts them financially, it impacts where they live, where they work, and it takes a special hand, I think, or maybe a special empathy, to get with them, to move through the project alongside them rather than simply present it to them and ask them to swallow it.
Were you involved with the 9/11 clean-up?
Our crews worked with one of the main contractors after 9/11, to pull the shards of skin of the building from the south tower of the World Trade Center, out of this 15 storey gash in the side of the Deutsche Bank building. So we are very familiar with the building, with the damages sustained, with the environment. We can speak about the community situation. And given that we often will go to a place like Seattle, where we had to communicate with an international community living around there, in four or five languages before felling the Kingdome arena, we have rather interesting community outreach experience and capabilities. We're patient. We understand people's emotions and the gamut they can run.
And you've got a new job in New York?
We're part of a team in a 14-month project with the Deutsche Bank, including cleaning up the 9/11 dust. It's not sexy, but standard and typical environmental remediation of the building. But naturally the project does have very unique community relations problems, which was one of the reasons we were involved.
When you watched 9/11, did you imagine that the towers would come down like that?
I did a report on the World Trade Center when I was at college and I knew exactly how it was built. I understood the concept. When I saw the first plane hit, my mind first went to: "Oh my god, what's happened? Is it a plane, a private plane?" But I was watching along with most of the western world when the second plane hit. And everything changed. When I saw what hit, that it was an airliner, that it was loaded with jet fuel, I remembered the long clear span configuration from the central core to the outer skin of the World Trade Center from the report I did. And we had just taken down two 40-storey structures in New York.
I still had some cellphone numbers so when the second plane hit I said: "Start calling all the cellphones, tell them that the building is going to come down." It was frenetic, nobody could get through even with speed dialling. And I just sat there, just sat there. Of course, building number 7, which is where the emergency management headquarters was, was on fire. I'd been in that office two months before. And I sat there watching, I picked up the phone and I called a couple of people on the National Research Council Committee involved in assessing the impact of explosives. They said: "What do you think this is, that they're going to fail, they're both going to fail?" The expression around was they're going to pancake down, almost vertically. And they did. It was the only way they could fail. It was inevitable. And it was horrific.
Could they have been built in such a way that they would have withstood the impact?
Bad question - they did withstand the impact. The correct question is could they have been built to withstand the consequences, the fire?
Well - could they?
I'll defer to the reports coming out, but I will say - is society willing to pay for it? It's far cheaper to take the battle to terrorists than let them bring it to us.
But 9/11 has also sent your insurance up, hasn't it?
It's gone up about 2000 per cent since 9/11. Not only because of 9/11 but because insurance companies lost a great deal of money in the stock market collapse just preceding 9/11 with the collapse of dot.coms. Our job is to make sure we never have claims.
Are you mostly successful in that?
We have an enviable record. No one has been killed as a result of our explosives demolition operations - though we have had to stop people hiding in dangerous places to get good pictures - one even disguised himself as a bush.
But you've been involved in a very wide range of projects that sound dangerous?
Yes, but we are very, very careful. We follow my dad's motto of stay small, stay sharp, stay safe. We have to stop other people sometimes. In 1995 we were involved in demolishing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that Timothy McVeigh bombed. And when I got to the site, there was a man trying to remove debris from the building to uncover bodies. I had to tell him to stop - if he had moved one more foot the whole building would have come down.
Yet you've worked in many environments?
Oh yes. Right now we are working at a nuclear plant in Maine, and one in Massachusetts, and getting ready to start one in Connecticut. We're working on nuclear facilities in Colorado Springs, and at Hanford in Washington State. And we're involved in destroying weapons.
We've been working with Bechtel Corporation on demolishing the Soviet Union's former biological warfare production facility in Kazakhstan. Much of the weapons destruction work that we do does not involve explosives at all, it's dismantling, removing items of proliferation concern and seeing that they are destroyed in accordance with treaties and conventions. We've also been in Iraq. There were missiles there that could have held biological and chemical weapons - but they were not filled. We were defuelling missiles and providing back-up to the military group. We helped get rid of hundreds.
Didn't your family coin the term implosion to describe one type of demolition you do?
That's right, my mother Freddie did - borrowing it from physics - back in the 1960s. I would say right now, the implosion side of things is possibly 5 per cent of our gross revenues worldwide. Globally it's around 1 per cent for all firms like ours. We do blow down a lot of things - as opposed to "collapse violently inward" which is literally what implode means. But we also do a lot of conventional demolition which is far less sexy!
Do you have an heir apparent?
There's no pressure - I'm only 56! Our kids - mine and Doug's - have always been encouraged to be their own people. There are children involved who do an excellent job and other great non-family employees as well.
Does your wife blast too?
Yes, Sherry handles explosives with me. She and Stacey have their own company, called CDI USA, it's women-owned. And it's just a very pleasant thing to see women involved in what has traditionally been a male dominated industry. I love it when people's eyebrows go up.
The women in my life are very special. Stacey is probably one of the more accomplished blasters we have - she first flipped a switch on a blasting machine aged 3! She handles all of our initiation systems, she's very intuitive about what we do. She is a very anal person in that regard - she really checks, cross-checks. I don't check her work, my brother doesn't check her work. We know that if she does it, it's right.