NEW ORLEANS — Officials set off thundering explosions that toppled two cranes Sunday that had loomed precariously for days over a partially collapsed hotel in New Orleans, saying their controlled demolition went “exactly” as planned and efforts now would focus on retrieving two bodies still inside the ruined building.
The fiery afternoon explosions sent up massive clouds of dust and sent one crane crashing to the street while the second fell in a way that left much of it resting atop the ruined hotel building where officials said it was “stable” and could be removed piecemeal.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell declared the demolition a success at a news conference.
“We know that we are safer now than we have been in the past eight days,” she said, referring to the partial collapse Oct. 12 of the Hard Rock Hotel that was under construction near the historic French Quarter. Three workers had died when several floors of the multistory building pancaked that day. Only one body could be removed in the days after the collapse.
The two construction cranes had been left badly damaged when the hotel’s upper floors collapsed atop each.
The cranes — one around 270 feet high, the other about 300 feet — weighed 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.
Loud alarms were sounded as curious throngs were kept blocks away before the blasts rocked the quiet of a Sunday afternoon.
Cantrell told reporters afterward that authorities will now begin focusing on bringing out the two remaining workers. Already, workers were beginning to remove rubble from the streets shortly after the blasts.
Fire Chief Tim McConnell, flanking the mayor, said a sewer line was damaged by falling debris from the blasts but efforts were under way to begin repairs. He also said officials were relieved that nearby gas and electric utilities appeared undamaged after a preliminary assessment.
“I do not think it could have gone much better,” McConnell said. He added that one crane fell and got “hooked on the building like we wanted. It’s very stable.” He said “it’s way better than what it looks” because of the way it is resting, adding it would now be cut away in pieces by workers using another crane and taken away.
The remains of one worker has been removed from the building days ago, but the bodies of the other two are still inside.
Authorities said getting the bodies out was the next objective, though they cautioned that the building remained dangerous and unstable though it did not collapse further with Sunday’s demolition.
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.
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.
The cause of the collapse remains unknown. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration is investigating and, Cantrell and Fire Chief Tim 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.