At Wilson Bridge, Out With the Old

Workers will use blowtorches to take down steel girders that survived the Woodrow Wilson Bridge demolition, and salvageable remains will be sold.
Workers will use blowtorches to take down steel girders that survived the Woodrow Wilson Bridge demolition, and salvageable remains will be sold. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The builders of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge aimed their full focus on constructing a second span yesterday, hours after the demolition of part of the old bridge capped a milestone-filled spring and summer.

Workers immediately began clearing the fallen steel beams and other debris that crashed to the ground early yesterday morning when powerful explosives were detonated and a half-mile section of the old bridge crumbled.

But despite a series of firecracker-like charges that shook the Alexandria night, about 80 feet of steel girders stayed riveted in place. Workers will use blowtorches to take them down in the coming weeks, project officials said. The rusted metal that was demolished will be trucked away in the coming days and weeks and sold as salvage, project officials said.

Once those tasks are completed, the old piers will be pulled apart, and crews will begin driving piles to form the base of a new bridge. The parts of the bridge that sit over the Potomac River will stay in place as a staging ground for the remaining construction before eventually being torn apart and removed.

The opening of the bridge's second span, planned for summer 2008, will mark the next major improvement in the $2.4 billion project.

"There are going to be some incremental impacts from now forward," project spokesman John Undeland said. "The next big event will be the opening of the second [span] in '08."

Yesterday morning's demolition ended a landmark-laden four-month stretch for the 11-year project. In May, the first new span was dedicated in a grand gala that featured dozens of local, state and federal officials. In June, traffic on the outer loop of the Capital Beltway crossed the bridge for the first time. In July, inner loop traffic was rerouted onto the new bridge, and the old one closed for good.

About 60 percent of construction is done, Undeland said. Aside from the new bridges, the project includes upgrading several interchanges in Virginia and Maryland to increase capacity on the Beltway and to accommodate the additional bridge lanes. Most of those projects will be finished by the time the second span opens. But improvements to the Route 1 interchange is not set to be completed until the middle of 2009, and the Telegraph Road interchange will not be finished until late 2011.

Yesterday's detonation about 12:30 a.m. was one of the most dramatic moments to date. Officials promoted the event widely and provided a stage on South Washington Street and other viewpoints for observers, who turned out in the hundreds to watch the spectacle. Alexandria police closed South Washington Street for 20 minutes to accommodate the throngs.

"We wanted to recognize the patience and pain of the public in waiting for the new bridge to open," Undeland said before the blast. "Also, we wanted to make sure everyone on the planet knew about it, so they didn't hear a big boom and wonder what else it could be."

Authorities took precautions to keep cars and thrill-seekers out of the area, even diverting air traffic about the time of the detonation. State police stopped Beltway traffic for about 30 minutes before and after the blast, and Alexandria police sealed off a 500-foot perimeter around the bridge to ensure that people stayed out of harm's way.

But spectators still managed to sneak into a nearby cemetery, and clearing them from the premises caused a 15-minute delay in the detonation.

The demolition was delayed further when cars crossing the bridge from the Maryland side stopped dead on the span to snap photos and try -- unsuccessfully -- to catch a view of the blast. About 25 drivers had to be shooed from the roadway, where some stubbornly tried to stay, said Marcelino Romero, the project's incident management coordinator.

"The troopers actually had to threaten some of them, that either they move or they take a ride in the police vehicle," Romero said.

Once the cars were cleared, the cameras turned to Daniel G. Ruefly, 53, of Accokeek, who was chosen as the person who had suffered the most at the hands of the old Wilson Bridge. He was given the honor of ceremonially pushing a detonator, a 100-year-old antique plunger and box resembling something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

The act was purely for show because Ruefly was not permitted to detonate explosives. The real detonator was set off by a contractor about 20 seconds after Ruefly pushed the plunger.

"It's a very controlled event, and the folks who are doing it are in charge, and they want to be completely in charge," Undeland said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company