JOPLIN, Mo. —
When Dan O’Connor first saw what the tornado did to the exterior of St. John’s Regional Medical Center, he thought there was a possibility it could be restored.
Then he went inside.
“There was no way they could make it back the way it was,” he said. “The damage inside was unbelievable.”
Then, he thought it would take more than a year to bring it down.
“We started on March 1,” he said. “We’ll have it done on Sept. 30. We are on target to meet that deadline. The weather is no problem. We like it when it rains because it helps keep the dust down.”
O’Connor is the project manager on the demolition project for Northstar Management, of St. Louis. It is the largest demolition project on which O’Connor has worked for Northstar.
But it is more than a demolition job. It could well be the single largest recycling project in the history of Joplin.
O’Connor estimates that 40 percent of the former medical center will be recycled. What’s not recycled will go to the Prairie View Landfill near Lamar and to the landfill operated by the city of Galena, Kan.
“We’ll even recycle the concrete as fill to prepare this site for the new school and the other projects that are planned here,” he said. “There is no need for this stuff to be taking up space in a landfill.”
Some of the concrete will be used by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to plug abandoned mine shafts and cave-ins that are being reclaimed in the region by the department, O’Connor said. Even the asphalt parking lots will be lifted and recycled.
The metal in the medical center is being sorted for recycling. O’Connor estimates the copper alone will be worth $1.5 million. Other metals that are being recycled include aluminum, structural steel, red iron and cast-iron pipe. A security team monitors the site around the clock.
The demolition started with the outlying buildings south of the medical center. The focus now is on the towers. Small earthmovers called Bobcats were lifted by a crane to the top floors. The Bobcats demolish the interior walls of each floor and push them to exterior openings on the south side of the medical center. From there, the material falls to the ground, where it is sorted for recycling. About 35 people are working on the project. They were hired locally.
Once the floors are cleared, the structure will be brought down by a machine that will cut through the concrete and steel supports that hold up the floors. That will bring the towers down in sections.
O’Connor said it is too risky to implode the building and have it fall all at once because of the mining that took place in the area. The concern is not the St. John’s property.
“It’s the potential for damage off site by having all of that weight come down at once,” he said. “The impact would be felt out beyond our property lines that could open other sinkholes.”
A mining subsidence on the east side of the towers forced the medical center a couple of years ago to bring down an elevated parking garage.
The medical center itself was built on piers that reach down to solid bedrock.
The demolition of an outlying building uncovered a prospect hole. A concrete bridge with piers was constructed over the hole so that it could carry the weight of the structure that was built on top of it, O’Connor said.
Mining maps from the 1800s have been used to show where the mining took place in relation to the new structures that are planned for the site.
The primary hazard at the site was asbestos, which has been fully removed. The May 2011 tornado did not cause any nuclear lab material to be released.
As the demolition has progressed, artifacts have been saved, including much of the artwork, the stained glass from the chapel, the main desk on the first floor, pavers with engravings, time capsules, statues and even the letters from the main entrance.
“A lot of things were hidden by newer construction,” O’Connor said. “We have found plaques and cornerstones. A lot of historical things — old photos and memoirs — were recovered from a library on the second floor.”
Crews also have found evidence of the power of the storm and things that are hard to explain. Pieces of wood in a mechanical room had pierced metal that was a half-inch thick. On the eighth floor, solid-core wood doors that were nearly 2 inches thick “were split like paper,” O’Connor said.
“The offices on the east side of the tower were completely destroyed,” he said. “But you could find coffee cups and personal pictures on desks that were untouched.
“When people have come here to retrieve personal items, they act tough like they can handle what they’re about to see. When they get inside, you can see the emotion overcome them.”
THERE WERE 189 PEOPLE in St. John’s Regional Medical Center when the tornado struck. Five patients on life support died when an air handler on top of the building was blown off and fell onto the hospital’s emergency generators. One visitor to the hospital was killed that day.