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WNY implosions have a history of attracting spectators roused by rubble

When the walls – and whatever is left inside the former Millard Fillmore Gates Hospital – come tumbling down this weekend, hundreds of spectators are expected to be watching the spectacular collapse.

Tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, will see video clips or still photos at some point, thanks to the magic of Instagram, YouTube, cell-phone cameras and even traditional media.

It will be the most-watched-ever destruction of a building in Western New York, with images spanning the region, the nation and even the globe.

But it won’t be the first local implosion to draw a crowd. The event scheduled for Saturday morning will be at least the fifth here in the last 20 years.

Four previous crowd-pleasing events included the destruction of a former Tonawanda death trap, a blast that was delayed for eight minutes for medical reasons and an implosion that helped explain the fantasy of toppling a building.

For the public, these implosions are pure theater, a fireworks show that’s more spectacular and lasts only a few seconds.

Here are some descriptions of the four previous building crumbles, according to Buffalo News archives:

50 High St.

At 6:08 a.m. on May 26, 2007, a former 14-story medical office building – once home to an abortion clinic that brought protesters to the site – was leveled to make way for new Kaleida Health construction. The pre-dawn event drew “hundreds” of spectators.

“Destruction found a faithful fan base Saturday morning on the corner of Main and High streets,” The News reported. “Children sat atop parents’ shoulders, and adults climbed to the top of a nearby playground’s jungle gym, while others flipped open their camera phones – all trying to catch a better glimpse of 50 High’s fall.”

The scheduled 6 a.m. implosion was delayed eight minutes. But just five minutes before the scheduled event, demolition officials learned that a heart-attack victim needed to be rushed to the nearby Buffalo General Hospital emergency room, which had been scheduled to close for a short time during the blast. The heart attack apparently was serious enough, and the patient lived so close to the hospital, that authorities decided to delay the event.

Officials wondering whether any lingering bar-hoppers will attend this weekend’s event, scheduled for 7 a.m. Saturday, may have gotten an answer with the comment of one spectator to the 2007 blast.

“We were at the bar, dead-tired and ready to go home,” one spectator told The News, “when [a friend] was like, ‘Hey, they are blowing up a building, want to go see it?’”

“Old Main Hospital”

The only recent winter implosion occurred on the morning of Feb. 18, 2001, when fewer than 150 pounds of explosives brought down a seven-story building at Carlton and Elm streets to make way for a landscaped park on the Roswell Park Cancer Institute campus.

“Old Main Hospital,” as the 47-year-old structure was known, went down with a loud boom about 9:15 a.m., breaking some nearby windows and sending large clouds of dust out into the medical-corridor neighborhood, The News observed.

One subcontractor noted how the 2001 blast was different from most implosions.

“We are going from one end to the other, not from the middle,” the subcontractor said, explaining that the building would not collapse inward, as in an implosion, but in one direction – southeast to northwest. “The usual, middle way is not the most practical in this case, with another building so close.”

Grain mill, Town of Tonawanda

On May 21, 2000, hundreds of people greeted the demolition on River Road with expected shouts of “wow” and “Was that awesome?” The News reported.

“From towering scourge to pile of rubble in just seconds, the long-standing eyesore that once was the Town of Tonawanda grain mill came cascading down with amazing grace Sunday,” The News reported. “The sudden, violent impact sent a flock of startled birds in awkward flight away from the billowing clouds of concrete dust that blotted the sky.”

Onlookers had an extra reason to celebrate that day. For the previous 30 years, the abandoned 11-story grain mill had become not only an ugly blot on the landscape but also a hangout that led young people into trouble, including at least two deaths.

One spectator that day viewed the implosion with mixed, but very emotional, feelings.

The Town of Tonawanda man, who watched the event from the VIP viewing area, lost his father in a 1961 accident at the site. The father, a production superintendent who had worked in the mill since the early 1920s, became stuck in a grain bin and suffocated, just a couple of years from retirement.

“I’m not quite sure how I feel about” the implosion, the victim’s son told The News. “For me, it’s always been a big tombstone because my dad died there.”

The former Ford Hotel

It took only about five seconds, on Oct. 31, 1999, to topple the-then 76-year-old building at 210 Delaware Ave., now home to the Hampton Inn parking lot.

“The moment arrived with an unsettling boom,” The News reported. “Then, in a brief cascading rush, the 12 stories of brick, mortar and steel shuddered before gracefully crashing to earth. The steeply falling remnants of the building’s towers stirred up huge, billowing plumes of dust that engulfed an entire city block.”

The day before the blast, in a story headlined “Eve of Destruction,” The News helped explain the joy of demolition. Most children, the story noted, experience the thrill of constructing something – usually with blocks – and then the joy of knocking it down.

The man in charge of the implosion admitted that even after coordinating thousands of controlled collapses, he still got a “giddy shiver” whenever a building toppled to the earth.

“We live all our childhood fantasies for making a mess,” the implosion expert said. “You go into an area where you know a house is going to be torn down, it feels good to pick up a rock and toss it through a window. Everybody has it in them.”

email: gwarner@buffnews.com