Officials set off thundering explosions Sunday to topple two cranes looming precariously over a partially collapsed hotel in New Orleans, but most of one crane appeared to be left dangling atop the ruined building while the other crashed down. The explosions set off massive clouds of dust, but officials say everything went exactly as expected.
After the dust cleared, part of one crane could be seen hanging over the building while the end of one of the cranes, which was partially obstructed by New Orleans' landmark Saenger Theater, fell to the ground. In a press conference, New Orleans Fire Department Chief Tim McConnell said the crane that was hooked onto the building was "very stable but cautioned that it was an initial assessment.
"I would tell you I do not think it could go much better," McConnell said.
McConnell confirmed that a sewer line was damaged by the crane that smashed into the street below. He said no gas or electric lines were damaged. The Saenger sustained minimal damage, with three windows breaking following the implosion.
It's unclear if any other buildings were damaged. Mayor LaToya Cantrell stressed that extracting victims from the site was the main priority.
Crews will then work toward a full demolition. "To be clear, I don't want anything salvaged on this site. We want a complete demolition," Cantrell said.
The initial demolition comes a little over a week after the deadlythat was being built near a corner of the city's historic French Quarter.
The two cranes had been badly damaged when the hotel's upper floors pancaked onto each other, sending debris tumbling to the street and plumes of dust into the air, though there were no apparent air quality issues, according to initial tests.
Three workers died in the disaster. The remains of one worker has been removed from the building, but the bodies of the other two are still inside — and Cantrell said the focus will be on retrieving the bodies.
The cranes — one around 270 feet high, the other about 300 feet — weigh thousands of tons. They had been tilting dangerously, and officials had feared the towers would come down on their own, possibly smashing into nearby buildings or severely damaging underground gas and electric lines.
Experts, including engineers who worked on demolitions following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, were called in to try to come up with a plan to clear the site and prevent further injury and damage before the cranes fell on their own.
Cantrell told a press conference that "we know that we are safe now than we have been in the past eight days" since the hotel collapsed.
On Thursday, officials announced plans to bring down the structures in a controlled demolition. Workers suspended in a small bucket attached small explosives to various locations on the two cranes, with the goal of causing a series of explosions that would weaken the cranes in key locations and cause them to collapse.
Once planned for Friday, the demolition was pushed back to Saturday, then Sunday.
Officials expanded an evacuation zone in the leadup to the detonation, and in an even wider area, vehicles were prohibited and people were told to stay indoors until the demolition was complete.
Officials also called on people to stay out of the area and watch the demolition on television instead of coming down to watch in person.
Police had cleared the area ahead of the explosions, and then sounded a series of alarms that could be heard across the neighborhood before the controlled explosions were carried out.
Hard Rock issued a statement Sunday clarifying its role in the implosion and said its "attention remains on those who have suffered and are suffering in New Orleans."
"We were contacted Friday afternoon to provide urgently needed financial support for the safe removal of the two cranes," the company said. "We immediately authorized the funds from an escrow account to allow the Kailas Companies to fulfill its obligation."
The cause of the collapse remains unknown. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration is investigating and, Cantrell McConnell said, evidence gathering began soon after the collapse.
Lawsuits are already being filed on behalf of some of the more than 20 people injured against the project's owners and contractors.