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Historic Seneca bridge disappears in seconds

With Weinreich’s push of a button, center span implodes

SENECA — A one-shot deal, Wes Weinreich said of his 12-year-old son, who dropped the old Illinois 170 bridge into the river at daybreak Thursday.

“Wow,” was all Jacob Weinreich, a seventh grader at Seneca Intermediate School, said after he pushed the buttons on the control panel that imploded the center span of the bridge into the Illinois River.

Jacob was very intent as he held down the button for the activator with his left thumb, then hit the button with the other hand to set off the charges.

There was no practice run beforehand either, his dad said.

In return, Jacob was gifted with a souvenir T-shirt from the bridge construction crew, another from the Oklahoma company that engineered the implosion, a safety vest and a hard hat. He was accompanied by his dad and his mom, Carrie Weinreich, and then it was time for school.

A second implosion to raze the north and south spans is set for 7 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 23.

The center span was dropped in the main channel of the river on time at 7 a.m.

The implosion took just a few seconds from when the charge went off to the splashdown.

Many spectators who lined the south riverbank or climbed aboard the towboat-restaurant Katie Hooper were caught by surprise at the speed of the process.

Several Chicago media representatives also clambered aboard the towboat to film and record the implosion. A TV helicopter circled overhead. All were well outside the 1,000-foot buffer zone surrounding the site.

Seneca Streets Commissioner John Lamb said the plan was to drop the span in 50- to 60-ton chunks, then bring in the crane barge to try and get it all removed by 7 p.m. Thursday. The U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers are to sound the bottom of the river to make sure all the debris has been retrieved, then traffic can be resumed.

“I don’t think that will happen until Friday morning, while they make sure it’s clean. They worked on getting ready for the implosion and cleanup all day Wednesday,” he said as he stood on board the Katie Hooper to watch the old bridge go down. “I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.”

Seneca Mayor David Spicer was also aboard the towboat. He said the number of people who turned out to watch the implosion was incredible.

“They’re from all over,” he said. “There are license plates on the cars here from Florida and Indiana — everywhere. It’s unbelievable. I didn’t realize it was going to be this big a deal.”

Katie Hooper owner Jack Cunningham, an Aurora attorney and the Kane County Clerk, noted his involvement with Seneca for more than 20 years.

“The old bridge has been sort of a trademark here, and it’s going to be missed,” he said, noting this as the probable reason for such a large spectator turnout.

“I think they’re sentimentally attached - I really do. If you lived here and crossed it your whole life, it was quite an experience.”

Cunningham, who also owns the marina just west of the bridge, recalled the time a motorcycle movie producer shot views of a bike with passengers traveling on the deck.

“When they got off it, all they talked about was how scared they were, and the bridge was so high,” he said. “It did give you the feeling of being up in the sky because it was wide open and you could see the whole river. The first time I came across the old bridge, my stomach started to turn a bit and I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’”

Cunningham said the bridge was built in the early 1930s. “She has served this community well - she really has,” he noted.

Larry Voight of Dykon Explosive Demolition of Tulsa, Okla., said his company loaded the center span of the bridge — the section between the two major piers — with shake charges of copper and material inside designed to cut steel and bring it straight down into the water.

“We set them on the bottom cord and certain vertical columns,” he said of the charges. “It will divide the bridge into eight sections. The top cord has not been cut - it’s still together. When they drop it, from about 20 feet on each end of the piers, it will cut completely and the whole center span will drop in the river.”

When the center span went, a barge with crane was immediately towed to the site and the top cord was cut with torches into eight sections. These were to be floated to the riverbank to be cut into material and hauled away for salvage.

“They’ve got 14 hours to do that,” Voight said. “I’m sure everyone will be excited if they start running over that time.”

He said implosion would be over pretty quickly — “There’s just going to be one boom and it’s all going to drop in the river, and that’s it.”

Voight was right.

Senecan Larry Messmer of Seneca said he thought the whole event was great.

“We’ve finally got a decent bridge to cross,” he said of the new, $24 million replacement span that opened to traffic about three weeks ago. “The old one was 75 years old.”

While Messmer was in Florida, he watched the implosion of the old river bridge on Illinois 47 at Morris in 2003.

“They had it on live TV in Florida,” he said. “On the wall at the international terminal, there were sequential still photos of the old Morris bridge dropping in the water.”

Patty Messmer, also of Seneca, said her grandfather, Clarence Gage, hauled construction steel for the bridges built 70 to 80 years ago across the Illinois River in Morris, Seneca, Marseilles, Ottawa and Utica, and since replaced.

“He was paid $800 a month, which, back in the 1930s, was a big deal. That was a lot of money. At Christmastime, he made sure the families in town, the kids, got something, and a Christmas dinner from the money he was paid,” she said.

“In the 1960s, a man said to me, ‘You’re Clarence Gage’s grandkid, aren’t you?’ I said ‘Yes.’ He said the older kids knew it was Grandpa that gave them stuff for Christmas because he got oranges shipped up from Florida.”

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