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Sellwood Bridge blasting: More buildup than bang!

by: DAVID F. ASHTON - Checking and double-checking, these workers continue preparing for their first blast.Some media reports built up big expectations for Sellwood residents for a series of explosions on Highway 43. It was part of the plan to widen the highway for the new, bigger Sellwood Bridge west-side interchange. There was fear that the nighttime explosions would shake the ground and rattle windows.

But, before the first blast, on the evening of March 13, the indefatigable Sellwood Bridge project spokesperson, Mike Pullen, told THE BEE, “We believe the warning sirens will be louder than the actual explosion.”

Because the explosions were to be detonated deep underground, to fracture buried truck-size boulders, and because the blast holes would be covered with heavy netting, Pullen predicted very little impact on residents along the Willamette River.

“I’m afraid that people hoping to see a Hollywood-movie-like explosion, with flames shooting high into the air and flying debris, will be disappointed,” Pullen said.

At about 9:30 pm that evening, a group of Sellwood residents came down to the foot of S.E. Spokane Street to witness the blasting about which they’d heard.

“We heard that there would be blasting and we wanted to see the explosion,” remarked Jacob Egger, who said he’d come up from Clackamas to watch with his friends. “We didn’t know if there would be anything worth watching.”

The others in the group said they all live near S.E. 9th Avenue and Marion Street. “I work at the Portland Bottle Shop, up on S.E. 13th Avenue,” said Tayor Cruise. “We had customers tell us that this was going on tonight. I went next door to tell the neighbors about the blasting, just so they were prepared for it. We decided to make a little evening trip down here.”

Jaime Crawford chimed in, “You know, the worst part of this is that nobody notified the neighborhood that there would be sirens and blasting happening tonight.” (It had been in the daily newspaper, and on radio and television news, however.)

As the group sat on the embankment just west of a commercial building, another neighbor walked up and said the flagger at the east side bridge approach had commented that the 9 pm blast probably wouldn’t happen until after 10:30 pm.

Television crews also turned up at the west end of S.E. Spokane Street, at the Willamette River, hoping to get live images of the explosion. Instead, reporters only saw traffic backed up in every direction, because only one lane of Highway 43 was open at any time that evening, making for long queues across the bridge and on either direction of Highway 43.

By 11:30 pm, the last television crew left – empty-handed – since no blast had yet occurred. THE BEE, intrepid in covering this latest Sellwood Bridge story, remained. Just three minutes later, the first warning sirens went off, echoing across the glassy-smooth surface of the river.

Then, at 11:38 p.m. the blast final warning siren sounded. After that came the traditional shouted warning that precedes the use of explosives, “Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!”

And, as the last remaining news organization on hand for the blast, we can report that Pullen was right.

The explosion was barely audible.

Not much dust on the surface of the far hillside over Highway 43 was disturbed. There were no leaping flames; no boulders hurtling through the air. Only an almost inaudible “mooof” could be heard, picked up by THE BEE’s highly directional microphone. In fact, the only living thing to be disturbed by the blast appeared to be a deep-throated goose, which responded with a honk or two and flew off.

Blasting continued on the west end of the Sellwood Bridge project, on the embankment above Highway 43, on the evenings of March 20 and 21, also without incident.