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Dynamite Brings Down Lake Champlain Bridge


The Crown Point Bridge across Lake Champlain has served as a major link between Vermont and upstate New York for eight decades. This fall, the structure was found to be so unstable that state officials feared it might topple. Yesterday, engineers brought down the 2,000-foot span of steel and concrete, opening the way for a new bridge. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, local residents hope the explosion marks a first step toward getting their lives back to normal.

BRIAN MANN: Old newsreel footage from 1929 shows then-New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt mugging for cameras as the ribbon was cut at the center of the Crown Point Bridge.

Unidentified Man #1: The opening of the bridge was a truly momentous, historic event, and the communities on both sides of the lake turned out to see it.

MANN: The moment was included as part of a documentary produced by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. The graceful arch metal trusses became a fixture on the landscape here, set against the backdrop of the Adirondack Mountains. But for years, locals complained that the bridge seemed to be falling apart. Robin Reed is a dairy farmer from Charlotte, Vermont.

Ms. ROBIN REED (Dairy Farmer): My son drove his tractor over here to spread some manure earlier this year. And he said, I looked down and I could see the rebar. And this was before they closed it. And he said, I'm not going over that thing again.

MANN: Then this fall, Ted Zoli, a consultant working for New York's Transportation Department, found that the cement foundations under the bridge were literally rotting away.

Mr. TED ZOLI (Consultant, New York Transportation Department): As we poured into the piers some three or four feet, the outside 18 inches just crumbled in your hand.

MANN: The bridge was closed abruptly in mid-October, disrupting the lives of thousands of people in the Champlain Valley who often live and work on opposite shores. Locals were infuriated by hundred-mile detours, convinced that state officials had neglected the old bridge, allowing it to decay without proper maintenance. This folk song has circulating on YouTube.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Oh, they it ain't safe anymore.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) It ain't safe.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Yeah, but they spent all our money on stuff they shouldn't have spent it for. Now, the pilings they're all rotten. Simple maintenance was forgotten. It...

MANN: State engineers insist that the cement pilings deteriorated much faster than anyone could've anticipated. But in a briefing before Monday's blast, lead project engineer John Grady acknowledged that the structure was so unstable, they actually had to use more explosives to ensure a clean demolition.

Mr. JOHN GRADY (Project Engineer, Crown Point Bridge): We'll have somewhere over 500 linear-shaped charges on the bridge. That's over 800 pounds of explosives. It's going to be loud.

MANN: A few minutes after 10 a.m. yesterday morning, the warning whistle sounded.

(Soundbite of whistle)

MANN: Then Vermont Governor Jim Douglas pushed the detonator button, triggering a sudden tremor and a rip of white light.

(Soundbite of explosion)

MANN: The steel trusses dissolved into blue-gray smoke, with sections of metal tippling slowly down through a snow squall. Tons of concrete and steel sent a surge of water sweeping across the ice-covered lake.

(Soundbite of ice cracking)

MANN: State officials say a new span will in place by the summer of 2011, and despite lingering resentment over the loss of this historic bridge, local leaders say they're pleased with the pace of the project. With temperatures here expected to plunge into the single digits this week, workers have already begun hoisting the tangled wreckage onto barges so it can be hauled away for scrap.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Westport, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann