Continuing on Five this week is the gripping documentary series that explores huge engineering projects from all over the world. This instalment sees a family of demolition experts attempt to bring down one of the USA’s oldest luxury resorts – the Sheraton Bal Harbour hotel in Miami Beach, Florida.
In the busy tourist spot of Miami Beach in Florida, one historic hotel is due for demolition. Once host to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and even John F Kennedy, the 50-year-old Sheraton Bal Harbour now stands empty. In order to make way for a new, multibillion-dollar complex of luxury apartments, the 17-storey hotel and its 12-storey car park must be flattened. To get the job done, the land owners have hired the best in the business – a family-run company from Maryland called Controlled Demolition, Inc (CDI).
CDI has taken down resorts all over the world, but this project offers a unique challenge. The Sheraton is surrounded on all sides by people and property. To the north and south are huge apartment blocks, to the west a busy road and a shopping mall and to the east, a pristine beach. In order to avoid damage to other buildings, the hotel must be brought down into predetermined fall zones. For explosives expert Stacey Loizeaux and the rest of her family, this will be the second demolition in quick succession. “I’ll be very happy when these buildings are on the ground,” says Stacey. “Two shots in one week is a lot of work!”
With just ten days to complete the project, demolition designer and company president Mark Loizeaux must work fast. However, after an initial inspection, he spots a big problem. Designed to protect the building against hurricanes, a huge steel wall known as an I-beam spans the sixth floor of the hotel. “This is bad,” says Mark. “I can’t do anything with this.” The presence of the I-beam means that Mark’s plan to topple the hotel will not work, since the flexible steel could withstand the blast and pull the falling concrete onto a neighbouring building.
Another problem surfaces during an examination of the car park. Buildings like this normally use large concrete pillars reinforced on each side by steel rods known as rebar. However, the rebar in these pillars seems to be irregular, meaning the explosive charges must be very carefully set in each column. “I hate this rebar configuration,” says Mark. In order to find a solution to the problem, Mark organises a test blast on two of the columns and examines the results to determine how much dynamite he will need for the demolition.
Meanwhile, Mark’s brother Doug deals with the I-beam. To cut through the tough steel he intends to use a number of ‘shaped charges’ – explosive charges shaped to focus the effect of the blast in one direction. The weight of the beam will then help pull the building into the fall zone. “The real key is timing,” says Doug. “We’re using the construction to control the fall of the building.” As insurance, the team threads huge tensile cables throughout the building to drag the back wall forwards during demolition.
Once the hotel and car park have been prepared, Stacey and Devon arrive on scene to load 230kg of explosives. However, one of the Sheraton’s neighbours files a last-minute complaint about the proposed demolition, meaning the city council cannot issue a permit. Relying on the notion that the permit will come through in time, Mark instructs his daughters to lay the charges as planned.
In the event, Mark’s permit comes through with just 24 hours to spare. With all the charges laid, the site secured and the police on hand to block the roads in the surrounding area, the countdown can finally begin. “We’re loaded, we’re wired, we’re ready to go,” says Mark. But with so much at stake, will the demolition go as smoothly as planned?