Empire Demolition helping Firefighters
Demolition Contractor Finds Business in Helping Local Fire Department
Information from this article was first published in Demolition Magazine and is being reused with permission from the National Demolition Association.
On Sunday, April 2, 2017, the Empire Group received an emergency call. The Reading Fire Department needed help fighting a three-alarm blaze in a vacant four-story warehouse at 11th and Chestnut streets in Reading, PA.
“I got the call around 11:30 a.m.,” says Todd Quinter, operations manager for Empire Services. This was not the first time the demolition expert and 33-year employee of Empire had received such a call.
Since its founding by Harry “Whitey” O’Neill Jr. in 1955, National Demolition Association (NDA) member company Empire Wrecking Co. has provided demolition services to the city of Reading and surrounding areas in Eastern Pennsylvania. Quinter says Empire has assisted Reading firefighters many times, in addition to working on numerous non-fire-related jobs for the city.
Over the years, the company grew and expanded to meet the needs of customers. Five new companies were founded to offer building products, transportation, environmental remediation, waste disposal and utility repairs. The founder’s sons, Harry J. O’Neill III, president, and Todd M. O’Neill, executive vice president, lead the Empire Group, which today includes six subsidiary companies, powered by more than 200 employees and more than 400 pieces of equipment.
On this day, as on so many others, Empire Services quickly heeded the city’s call for help. The fire was burning near the center of the large warehouse, which formerly housed Letisse Handbags and L&B Metals. Empire used a Hitachi 300 65-foot long reach excavator to assist the Reading Fire Department gain access to the fire.
“We chose that piece of equipment because we could move it to the site more quickly than our larger excavators,” Quinter says. “Under the direction of the Reading Fire Company, we started to demolish and open up areas of the building they needed to get access to.”
The Empire crew worked into the evening helping Reading firefighters extinguish the blaze. The cause of the fire is still unknown and under investigation. Luckily, no injuries were reported.
In the days that followed the fire, Empire received another call for help, this time from Reading city officials. Due to the instability of the burned building, the city wanted to demolish the entire structure. Reading awarded Empire the contract for the demolition.
“We have a good rapport with city officials,” Quinter says. “When they call us, we always quickly respond to their needs.”
This good rapport found an Empire crew again working into the evening, this time placing temporary fencing around the site on 11th and Wunder streets. The fencing was installed to close the road and ensure the safety of the many residents in the densely populated neighborhood.
After this preliminary step, Empire used a John Deere 450 95-foot-long stick excavator and a John Deere 290 excavator to take down the immense brick warehouse. “We moved very methodically to take down the building, starting at the highest point to the lowest point, and also moving from front to back, from 11th Street to Wunder Street,” Quinter says. “We proceeded very carefully, because of the close proximity of the neighbors.”
The warehouse was four stories in some areas and two stories in others, all of it interconnected. The building was mainly brick, and the debris was brick, cement and wood. When the businesses left the building, they left everything inside, adding to the debris that needed to be removed.
“As we tore the building down, we moved tons of debris out,” Quinter says. Delaware Valley Contractors, another Empire Group company, provided transportation, including tractors with lowboy trailers to deliver equipment. They also supplied large walking floor trailers and tri-axle dump trucks to remove the 6,700 tons of debris, primarily brick, cement and wood.
“We sometimes used three walking floors in a day to take away debris, with those three trucks making multiple trips each day,” Quinter says.
“We had an estimated quantity of 6,700 tons of waste for this project,” Empire Vice President Allen Dejewski says. “All of the timber framing was destroyed in the fire so it was all designated for the landfill. Fortunately, we were able to recycle the building solids — brick, CMU (concrete masonry units) block and concrete — which was approximately 3,300 tons.”
In addition to the vacant warehouse, the city also requested that Empire demolish a vacant row home connected to the warehouse, located at 235 S. 11th St. This row home was one of two major challenges Empire encountered on the project. It was connected to another row home that was to remain intact, and people were living in that house.
“We moved very gingerly in that area,” Quinter says. The row home’s roof was unstable, so Empire used a JLG 45-foot high reach to allow workers to separate the roof by hand in the spot where the warehouse and the row home were connected. A machine was used to take the rest of the roof off the house.
The other challenging aspect was a 12-foot-wide alley between the warehouse and the row home that would remain. The house was located on Wunder Street. City officials had required the people to move out of that house temporarily because the warehouse was structurally unsafe. Empire put shoring up along the wall that was toward the house as an extra precautionary measure.
“We worked very cautiously in that area to protect that home. After the demolition of the warehouse was complete, the people moved back into that row home.”
Quinter says the demolition strategy was focused on the safety of the many people who live very close to the warehouse. “The neighbors were very accommodating and patient,” Quinter says. “We watched out for them and they watched out for us. When we left at night, they watched over our equipment.”
Empire crews worked at the site throughout April and May, and were cleaning up the last details in June. The majority of the demolition took place during April.
“To me, a successful project is getting the building down in a safe and timely manner,” Quinter says. “We did that.”
In addition to keeping everybody safe and staying on schedule, Dejewski reports that almost 50% of the building waste was recycled. It was crushed and designated for reuse on other projects as needed.
The demolition project also produced an unplanned aesthetic victory. For decades, the residents of the neighborhood had looked out on a major eyesore: the abandoned four-story warehouse. After a few weeks of demolition, a welcome new view greeted neighbors for the first time. The removal of the tall brick walls revealed one of the most iconic and loved buildings in Berks County, the Pagoda, as well as the lush forests of Mount Penn. Built in 1908, the Pagoda sits atop Mount Penn and has been a tourist attraction and a symbol of the city of Reading for more than a century. The unique wooden structure was inspired by Japanese pagodas and features seven tapering stories. In 1972, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Residents in the neighborhood often sat on their porches and watched the demolition take place. When asked their opinion on the changes, many said they were happy to say goodbye to the vacant warehouse. They expressed hope that the new vacant lot will become a recreational park or additional space for parking.
“The neighbors really appreciate the new, improved view of the Pagoda and Mount Penn,” Quinter says. “It is great when we leave the jobsite better and more beautiful than we found it.”
Empire Group assists the city of Reading, PA, in extinguishing a blaze and removing an eyesore in a densely populated neighborhood!