Explosive exit: Champlain Bridge falls in a flash as thousands watch

MIDDLEBURY — A siren cut through Monday morning’s gray, flurry-filled sky above the Champlain Bridge and suddenly the anticipatory chatter among the assembled masses waned to a collective murmur.
In an instant, the wintry tableau before them was shattered by a loud thud, punctuated by a series of brilliant yellow and red flashes. Like a sand castle hit by a tsunami, the bridge dissolved into Lake Champlain from beneath a rising plume of thick, angry smoke, debris and dust.
Just like that, demolition experts had written an explosive epitaph for the 80-year-old Champlain Bridge, at the same time engineers were drafting plans for a nascent span that would replace it between the shores of West Addison and Crown Point, N.Y.
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It was a mere second in history, but legions of Vermonters and New Yorkers felt they had to be there to witness it.
“This is a really emotional day; I didn’t think I’d cry,” West Addison General Store (WAGS) co-owner Lorraine Franklin said of the bridge demolition, which went off without a hitch at around 10 a.m.
“The bridge means a lot to us. It’s history,” she added. “To see what happened with the negligence and to see what happened that it got to this point makes us angry. But we are trying to put that behind us and look ahead to what is coming — a new bridge and a new beginning for this area.”
New York’s blasting subcontractor, Advanced Explosives Demolition (AED), used some 500 pre-set high-tech linear-shaped explosive charges to cut through the bridge at 17,000 feet per second, bringing down the historic span in less than 10 seconds.
TWISTED AND BROKEN metal hangs from the demolished Champlain Bridge as viewed from the New York side of Lake Champlain Tuesday morning.
Photo by Diane Lanpher
New York and Vermont transportation officials closed the 2,187-foot-long bridge on Oct. 16 after substantial erosion was discovered on two of the span’s concrete piers. A public advisory committee has already recommended a “modified network, tied-arch” style of bridge to be installed in the same span location. Tentative plans call for the new bridge — estimated to cost upwards of $65 million — to be operational by the summer of 2011.
In the meantime, a contractor will be charged with removing the Champlain Bridge debris from the lake. Monday’s demolition created a lot of pieces to harvest.
“It went outstanding,” AED President Lisa Kelly said following an initial, post-blast inspection that revealed that the explosion had not only taken out the bridge, but one of its piers. Officials had banked on taking out all the piers in a separate operation.
AED officials had projected spending five days on the Champlain bridge job. It took 21 days due to harsh weather conditions. Company workers toiled on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to get the job done.
“Getting here was quite the journey, but now that we’re here, (the two states) can move forward,” said Kelly, who noted the Champlain Bridge was one of around 300 spans that AED has imploded in its almost 30-year history.
Vermont Gov. James Douglas was accorded the honor of setting off the demolition charges, which he did from a cordoned off knoll overlooking the bridge.
Asked jokingly if he had ever wielded such power during his seven years in office, Douglas chuckled, “not in the same context, of 500 pounds of explosives.”
It was a bridge that was coincidentally book-ended by the administrations of two Addison County governors of the state of Vermont. The late Gov. John E. Weeks of Salisbury helped his counterpart Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York inaugurate the Champlain Bridge on Aug. 26, 1929, with a simple scissors snip. Eighty years later, it was Douglas, of Middlebury, in his final term as chief executive, who sent the bridge to its demise with the simple press of a button.
“It is an interesting historical coincidence,” Douglas said during an interview with the Addison Independent. “In both cases, I view it as an occasion to observe the progress of improved infrastructure. This week, we will begin the first step to a new bridge that we hope will be at least as durable, if not more so, than this one.”
The Champlain Bridge was built back in the day for a 70-year run and racked up 80 years before being diagnosed with the severe erosion to its piers. Closure of the bridge on Oct. 16 left hundreds of commuters struggling to find alternative passage across the lake to jobs in Addison County and upstate New York.
The two states worked collaboratively with local ferries to extend operation into the winter, while bus services — including Addison County Transit Resources — pitched in to get people to county employers like Goodrich Corp., Middlebury College, Porter Medical Center and Country Home Products.
Still, several businesses in Addison, Bridport and Ferrisburgh lost precious drive-by customers while work continues on a new ferry service 1,000 feet south of the former bridge site.
Among those hardest hit has been the Bridge Restaurant, which on Monday found itself temporarily without a namesake. Restaurant owner Lisa Cloutier, along with WAGS owners Dana and Lorraine Franklin, have been among those soldiering through the tough times and who now see economic salvation in the new ferry service and a new span.
Cloutier was able to capitalize on the sudden surge of passersby with an array of baked goods, coffee, T-shirts, mugs, bridge photos and hats for sale.
Cloutier voiced mixed feelings about seeing the bridge demolished.
“It’s sad,” said Cloutier, who found herself tagged for multiple interview requests from local, statewide and national media. “At least we will have a new bridge in a year and a half.”
Her restaurant will be closed until the new ferry service opens at the end of January.
“I have a month off,” Cloutier said. “In 30 years, I have never been unemployed.”
Lorraine Franklin said she believes WAGS and other area businesses have a chance to rebound and become more successful than ever.
“We have a chance to take it to the next level,” Franklin said of the future with a new bridge.
Elsa Gilbertson, regional historic site administrator for the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, was among those staking out spots from which to view the bridge demolition. Gilbertson was indeed viewing the blast with a sense of trepidation. Her office is based in an historic building located a few hundred feet from the bridge. The building’s windows had to be boarded up to guard against blast damage.
“(The bridge) has been a good friend these many years,” said Gilbertson, who has worked out of the Addison office since 2001. It’s an office that contains archives from Millard Barnes, who sold the property to the bridge commission back in the 1920s.
Gilbertson and her colleagues will have to get used to not seeing the old bridge, then working through the considerable din of the construction of a new bridge, and then the restoration of traffic.
“Having the bridge gone is a huge loss; it was always so magnificent in any kind of weather, so beautiful all the time,” Gilbertson said. “This has been a crossing since the first inhabitants came 8,000 years ago, so I am glad there is another bridge going back in.”
Gilbertson’s office provided much input in the new replacement span.
Jim Ross of Middlebury plopped down a portable seat along the shores of the lake, around 1,200 feet from the bridge. The American Studies teacher and Revolutionary War re-enactor has spent decades teaching history; now he was going to be a part of it.
“This is the first time in 80 years that this passageway will be without the bridge,” he said looking into the distance. “I was hoping for a little better day, because I want to get some pictures so I can paint some 18th-century drawings of the other side without the bridge interfering.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, came to the demolition with two men who had seen the grand opening of the Champlain Bridge back in 1929. Bill Larrabee and Al Abair shared their story with the Addison Independent in the Dec. 10 issue.
“I hate to see the bridge go, but I know it’s so far gone that there is no sense putting more money in to fix it,” Abair said, as he took some shelter from the cold in the Bridge Restaurant. “I think they should have seen it coming a long time ago and got a ferry running in here before they closed it.”
Lanpher, in her freshman term in the House, said this has undoubtedly been the number one constituent issue she has helped tackle during her brief tenure. Lanpher serves on the House Transportation Committee.
“I can’t imagine a better time for me to have been in the House than this year,” said Lanpher, who has also had a lot of contact with people on the New York side of the lake who have been concerned about the bridge. “This crisis has really brought a lot of people together that may not have always had an opportunity to work together.”
A public safety contingent of approximately 40 Vermont State Police (VSP), Addison County Sheriff’s Department officials, Department of Motor Vehicle inspectors, Vermont Fish and Game Department wardens, Vermont Department of Forests and Parks employees and citizen volunteers helped ensure that people parked, walked and watched the spectacle from at least 1,000 feet away.
Lt. Bruce Melendy, commander of the VSP barracks in Middlebury, said he and his colleagues were told to anticipate thousands of spectators. A steady procession of vehicles filed along Route 17 away from the bridge site after the demolition, but it’s safe to say that poor weather conditions and limited visibility probably kept a lot of people at home to watch the implosion on television.

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