The 1515 tower implosion: Life's a blast for this building-busting clan
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Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WEST PALM BEACH — The Kelly family travels the country like a posse on a mission to destroy, unhitching their trucks and trailers long enough to blow up buildings and then saddling up and moving on.
Though their matching cowboy hats and shirts caught West Palm Beach's construction services director by surprise, he knows the Kellys are among the country's most sought-after demolition experts, fully capable of safely pulling off the Valentine's Day implosion of the 1515 Tower on the South Flagler Drive waterfront.
It's a challenge, Eric Kelly concedes, and one that has neighbors on edge. The 30-story, hurricane-damaged condo will be the third-tallest building imploded in the United States when it goes down Feb. 14, according to Kelly.
But Kelly, 50, has run Advanced Explosive Demolition for 30 years. It became a family affair when he met Lisa a decade ago.
"I was unimpressed completely," said Lisa, 49, of her first meeting with her future husband. Two of their children from previous marriages were dating, bringing Eric and Lisa together.
"I'm not an implosion groupie like most people. But wow, talk about explosive."
To West Palm Beach residents, especially those on South Flagler Drive, the 1515 Tower is the eyesore they can't avoid looking at every day. Built in 1974, the condo was damaged heavily in the 2004 hurricanes, forcing residents to move out.
For more than five years, delays from developers and city development requirements have kept the tower vacant and decaying.
Late last year, when it seemed like the demolition would finally take place, the original explosives company couldn't secure the $50 million of insurance that West Palm Beach required to protect neighboring condos.
The Kellys won the assignment.
They arrived from St. Maries, Idaho last week, cowboy hats and all, ready to fill the 1515 with 2,000 sticks of dynamite.
"There have been a couple of 30-story buildings to come down, but not many, and they didn't have exposure like this," Eric Kelly said. "The buildings next door are 142 feet away. This is tight and it's in a high-dollar community."
Some demolition companies might be nervous. The Kellys are thrilled.
Eric has imploded more than 1,000 buildings in 30 years, from Miami to India to Newfoundland and Greece.
Construction has long been the field of choice for Eric's family. His father was in demolition, though he never worked in implosions. Eric's brother was killed at age 21, falling to his death while installing a roof on a school.
Eric believes he's the only imploder in the world who's completely self-taught.
"I've been teaching myself since I began blasting at 11 years old," Eric said. "You just have to use common sense and you have to have some engineering fundamentals."
Eric's blue-collar upbringing in Scranton, Pa., is another world from Lisa's childhood in Nashville and California.
Her father, Buz Wilburn, was a senior executive for Capitol Records, and her uncle, Neil Wilburn, was a producer for RCA Records. If you name a group from the 1960s to the 1980s, Lisa has probably seen them perform — Pink Floyd, Metallica, The Grateful Dead.
Lisa eventually headed to Idaho to start a fitness company. She and Eric hit it off, merged their families and embarked on a life on the road.
Lisa home-schooled the kids because the family would spend almost the whole year in their trucks and trailers.
Most of their children are now adults with kids of their own. Sal, Frankie, Travis, Junior, Alfred and Nicole all help the family in the final stages of implosions, and most of them are expected in West Palm Beach this week.
Daughter Eliya is Eric and Lisa's one child together. Traveling is just a normal part of her life, although the 5-year-old blonde would rather work on her nails than explosives at this point.
Eric said the traveling is not stressful, and the family enjoys it. The hardest part of his job is dealing with the public, as well as government bureaucracy.
Residents are always nervous before an implosion, and at a community outreach at Palm Beach Day Academy on Wednesday, the Kellys spent 90 minutes answering questions, many repetitive. He understands it's part of his job, and he tries to reassure the public, but Eric says it can be tough working in cities where many people are hostile.
Dealing with West Palm Beach, Eric said, has been difficult at times. He said just obtaining the permit was a challenge, and the city has much more stringent demands than he faced in Miami or Tampa. Plus, paying more than $200,000 in insurance means the family could lose close to $100,000 on the 1515 demolition.
The implosion was supposed to be filmed for a series on The Learning Channel, but TLC had to back out because of production costs. Financial backing from TLC would have helped recoup the money from high insurance fees. Still, the Kellys didn't want to turn down the opportunity to take down a 30-story building.
In fact, they said they often have trouble paying the bills, which forced them to work 23 jobs last year.
"We're kind of the little guy who makes a lot of people a lot of money," said Lisa, of being a subcontractor. "Sometimes you get paid, sometimes you don't. Sometimes what you make keeps you on the road until the next job."
The jobs, which take weeks to complete, can be a thrill. But when they're completed, there's no celebration. Often, there's a slight depression.
After all the anticipation and stress of prepping the building, there's the excitement and intensity of the structure finally coming down. "Then there's that moment that it's all over, and it sucks," Lisa said.
"In the same breath we say 'we have another job lined up, right?' If you don't, it's over, because the dollars go fast. Living on the road breaks you."
Regardless, they wouldn't have it any other way.
With 30 years of work and little recognition from the public, the Kellys will finally have their moment in the spotlight.
The Imploders, a reality show about the Kellys on TLC, aired its pilot episode in December. The rest of the six-part series will begin in March.
Both the Kellys and TLC were hoping West Palm Beach would be the grand finale, but TLC needed production completed by the end of January and the city said it needed two more weeks to ensure proper safety procedures.
While the family is disappointed their tallest implosion won't air on national TV, they're still ready to bring down 1515.
"This building is tight and it's tall," Eric said. "It's an excellent challenge."