PELL CITY, AL (WBRC) - A 113-year-old smokestack set for demolition in Pell City fell onto the track hoe that was attempting to tear it down on Tuesday morning.
"Oh no! No no no no no no no!"
A woman's voice shouting that could be heard over the crowd, as a brick and mortar smokestack fell on top of a track hoe in Pell City Tuesday.
The driver of the track hoe, Tim Phifer, was not injured. City manager Brian Muenger said the back of the track hoe protected him until someone could move bricks to free him from the wreckage.
It capped a more than two hour effort to bring down the former Avondale Mills smokestack, built more than 100 years ago along with the textile mill and warehouse that once occupied the site just off Highway 231.
The smokestack was supposed to come down at 9 a.m. and motorists were advised to avoid that area during the time. But that charge--and a second one an hour later--failed to bring down the structure, though it did appear to sway a little after the second explosion.
Phifer and his track hoe then began crushing bricks at the base of the structure to weaken it. About a third of the bricks fell on the smokestack's western side while the backhoe stayed to the east and kept hitting the bricks from the side.
All during this time, crowds gathered on the block around it as people used cameras, smart phones and even a swarm of drones to capture the event.
When the final collapse came the tower compacted a big, then suddenly lurched to the east before Phifer could get out of his track hoe or move it.
Phifer said he's "lucky to be here" after surviving the smokestack falling on top of him. When it headed his way, he said he couldn't move his vehicle fast enough.
"And when it first started to drop, I was like, well okay, this is going good, this is going good, but like when it stopped, I realized then I had trouble, spun the machine, put as much of the machine as I could between myself and the smokestack," Phifer said.
"Dust was everywhere, you know, the world just went dark, all the coal dust. The bricks started forcing me up the side of the cab, by that time, it was over. And I reached up, realized I just had a couple little scrapes on my head," he added.
The group Sky Bama captured drone video of the smokestack coming down.
Avondale Mills operated multiple plants throughout Alabama as far back as 1897, and closed most of them, including the ones in Pell City and Sylacauga, in 2006. The Pell City facility burned two years later.
The smokestack survived that fire, and even multiple tornadoes that came through the city over the years, not to mention decades and decades of actual use.
However, Muenger says a study done by city hired engineers in 2008 indicated the exterior was unstable and in danger of bricks and pieces of mortar falling on people. The study suggested efforts to repair the structure to make it sound would be prohibitively expensive.
Muenger says the chimney was demolished to make way for a new park for the site. That, however, will have to wait until an environmental study is finished.