Out with the old, in with the arena

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As a group of former employees reminisced on the roof of a nearby parking garage, the old St. Francis Central Hospital, Uptown, vanished in a cloud of dust about 2:15 p.m. yesterday.

A series of 15 charges collapsed columns in the 10-story building, and the structure collapsed like a loaf of bread quickly sliced on a 45-degree angle.

The only hitch -- some broken windows in a few buildings outside the blast zone on Fifth Avenue, said James H. Redyke, founder and president of Dykon Explosive Demolition Corp. of Tulsa, Okla.

"All in all, I'm very pleased," Mr. Redyke said.

The hospital, a part of the city's landscape since 1974, was imploded to make room for a $290 million arena to be used by the Penguins.

"I hope that hockey team does it service," said Carol Wind, 63, of Castle Shannon, a former nursing administrator who worked at the hospital from the day it opened, Aug. 15, 1974, to the day it closed, Aug. 16, 2000.

About a dozen buildings already have been razed for the new arena, to go up between Centre and Fifth avenues. One other structure, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob Congregation, will be razed after it's vacated in mid-May.

As a senior official during the hospital's last days, Ms. Wind helped pick the closing date and was present when state Health Department officials came to collect the operating license.

"They come to the building, and they make sure everything is shut down. They physically take the license off of the wall ... Well, we kind of did it together," said Ms. Wind, one of about two dozen former employees who watched the implosion from the roof of the UPMC Mercy parking garage, off Forbes Avenue.

Others watched from UPMC Mercy's hospital windows and roof, from other rooftops and from a diamond-shaped viewing area that the Sports & Exhibition Authority designated at Bedford Avenue and Crawford Street.

The authority awarded Homrich Inc. of Carleton, Mich., an $868,000 contract to demolish the building, and Homrich brought in Dykon as subcontractor. Homrich last month was unsuccessful in demolishing the building through a technique that didn't involve explosives.

"It's being stubborn, just like we were," said Claudia Kiray, 56, of West Mifflin, who attended the hospital ground-breaking when she worked for a real estate developer and later worked as secretary to the hospital's financial chief.

She and her former co-workers said the hospital, founded by a group of doctors and known as Central Medical Pavilion before it became part of the St. Francis Health System, for a long time kept its head above water amid the rise of managed health care and other changes in the medical field.

Originally licensed for about 240 beds, it was never the city's largest hospital, "just the best," Ms. Wind said. The employees wore various hats at once, they said, forming a bond that remains to this day.

Led by New Eagle resident Judy McKee, who worked in the gift shop for 15 years, the former employees hold an annual reunion in South Park. They even arranged a final visit to the building less than a year ago and salvaged souvenirs from items that had been left behind.

The workers snapped photos and wept as the building was rocked by 15 explosions, each representing the detonation of 32 pounds of C-4 explosive in copper pipe. Mr. Redyke said NASA uses the same technology in launching the space shuttles.

"I just didn't think I'd feel this bad," Ms. McKee said.

Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548. First Published March 23, 2008 4:30 AM


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