Watch the demolition (unbuilding) of the Grace and Pearman Bridges (old Cooper River Bridges)

The Bridge Blog
A dialog about our new bridge and these web pages

Overview. Schools and universities are all about learning - and learning is mostlly brain training. Learning is expedited by repetition and forgetting is expedited by infrequent use of learned skills or information. Tracking the building of the Ravenel Bridge and now tracking the demolition of the Grace and Pearman Bridges bring many questions to me and help me better understand the role Google and the Internet play in just-in-time learning. I enjoy chasing my curiosity and want to identify ways to encourage younger learners to also enjoy curiosity chasing and learning.

Many young learners do not understand the importance of repetition. More important, while experienced learners understand the learning process they often do not realize the destructive effects of the forgetting process. Over the course of the bridge project, I have access to only a few experts. Rather than a liability, this has become an asset and pushed me to improve my search skills with Google. Soon, I realized that answers to questions encountered during my photo adventures were often only a Google-search away. Gene Stead, my first boss and I put these ideas together in a small essay: (see Restoring the Joy in Learning).

Google + Internet have become dependable extensions of my memory. Insights I gain from you and this project will find their way into the learning centers in our schools and universities.

Thu, 15 Dec 2005

December 15, 2005: Something to think about.

A holiday message from Ellen and myself to all of y'all.

Many folks do not have the possibility to see something that is often somewhat off limits. For me, the opportunity to look over the shoulders, initially of Wade, Peo and Marvin with PBC and now the Cashmen guys, the Testa guys and their subcontractors, specifically Mickey Rogers and his ABS team has been unique. It is appropriate during this holiday season to share with you something that is deeply personal for me. Yesterday, my wife found Unbuilding at Ground Zero and Rebuilding in Iraq and I found it so relevant to the unbuilding story that is unfolding here in Charleston, that I want to share it with you. The essay is an interesting assessment of William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center. The focus of these works is on problem solving - and more important, spontaneous problem solving within the unbuilding trades.

I have been impressed, which is an understatement, at the problem solving skills of all the team members that are working on the Charleston Project whether excavator operator, iron worker, burners, supervisors, drivers (whether truck or crew boat) and the engineering staff. Mickey, Pio, John, Neil, Paul, Ken, Joe, Ponch and many many others have provided me with a small look at their world and the daily challenges they face. From time to time, I have pointed out their innovative approaches to a number of problems - at least as seen from my perspective (remember, I am trained as an electrical engineer, so all of this is new to me).

When unbuilding something, one does not know what is hiding under the roadbed until it is revealed. I believe successful unbuilders self select themselves because they are really good problem solvers. From my vantage point as a university faculty member, conveying to junior learners the problem solving and critical thinking skills we have acquired over our career is evident in the building and unbuiding trades but, I feel, is often overlooked within our primary, secondary and university educational systems.

These guys pass their insights, seemingly effortlessly, from generation to generation. Apprenticeship education and learning by example at its best. As we enter a new era of learning where the Internet flattens our world, makes impossible friendships possible and provides a way for like-minded folks to interact with each other, it seems to me that we need to also take lessons from serious card-carrying unbuilders and develop an understanding of how they transfer their skills to junior learners. It is time for our formal educational system to look critically at how the informal educational system that I have observed within the building and unbuilding community works - and explore ways to strengthen our interactions with our new friends and colleagues.

A special thanks from Ellen and myself to Michael, Tina, Richie, Kathy, Jack, Pio, John, Neil, Mickey, Joe, Ken and Ponch for opening my eyes! (And apologies to all the others that I did not name.)

posted at: 13:59 | path: | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 25 Nov 2005

November 25, 2005: The day after Thanksgiving and a time reflection.

It is Thanksgiving and most of the Cashman / Testa team has made its way back to Boston while local members have returned to their nearby homes. It is quiet here. Josh (our youngest) and his girlfriend came for Thanksgiving. Ellen departed from tradition, and deboned a huge chicken (10 lbs) for dinner yesterday. Our small family enjoyed a quiet afternoon, wonderful dinner topped by one of Ellen's impossible blackberry pies (the secret is the crust which was passed down from her mother). Last night we visited the top of the new MUSC parking garage and found the new Ravenel Bridge quietly inviting us over. To the right was the shadow of the remaining Pearman cantilever section. Just visible, but somehow it fit my mood. Today I took Josh and Bibi for a survey of the bridge work. Bibi is an Art History expert and the interplay of the bridge structures and early morning or late afternoon sun makes for very interesting images. Earlier Bibi looked (probably after being forced by me) to look at a few of the videos I made of our mostly Boston surgeons - and her immediate impression was the care and slow and deliberate way the operators move material from A to B. It was my impression from many months ago. For her to catch it immediately gave me a bit of satisfaction that the photos and videos are, indeed, capturing some of the skillful approach the unbuilding team takes with their work.

posted at: 14:53 | path: | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 06 Nov 2005

November 6, 2005: Sunday - a day of rest and reflection.

University life restarted in late August. This makes my double life rather hectic - trying to capture the bridge unbuilding during the early morning, late afternoon and evenings. Unbuilding has a rapid pace while building (the Ravenel Bridge) was slower and a bit more predictable. The fast-paced unbuilding, though, has opened new doors for me and brought new friendships. But to track all that is going on - well, its impossible at least for me.

But there has been a big surprise for me. With the unbuilding project has come lots of email from wifes, kids and relatives of the Testa and Cashman teams. While I had a little email from the Ravenel families, the Testa / Cashman families have brought a new dimension to these pages. I have to thank Tina Hebb, Maura Bickford (Jack Foley's sister), Donna (Jack's aunt) and Kathy Billingsley for adding this new dimension to our web pages. Kathy is faced with the empty nest syndrome back in Boston with her husband and her 2 "boys" working on the project. From time to time, she reminds me that I missed an update. So the Internet has really flattened our world - and geographic separation does not seem to get in the way of developing friendships between people I have never geographically met.

Meanwhile back on the work site, work is mostly 24 hours/day - a 12 hour morning shift and a 12 hour night shift. The teams are dynamic - and some members of the day shifts are moved to the evening shift and that makes identifying teams and meeting them and learning something of their work and life a challenge. I have managed to meet most of the team leaders - Bob McCabe, Neil Myers, Pio Monsini and Paul Leary. Ponch Billingsley seems to have his fingers everywhere and is moving from site to site, along with Steve Testa - sort of roaming symphony conductors who refuse to remain standing on a single platform. Moreover, Joe Duffey and Ken Canty are into everything. One afternoon I was watching Mike Hebb hammer away at a Pearman column (at the Port) and Joe walks up and we talk about what is happening. Later that night I found Jack Foley and Roy Delpriete segmenting concrete girders. Joe was there also.

Early one morning (about 4am) I caught some of the cleanup from removing roadway over the East Bay ramp to the Ravenel bridge. Then about 10 that night I was watching Neil's team pick up the concrete girders over the East Bay ramp. Each time I ran into Joe. And Ponch was multi-tasking - directing traffic, running a front loader (to set up for the 7550) - you name it, these guys are all over it. They truly reflect a highly skilled surgical team that is continuously fascinates me. No boring jobs here - there are always surprises. But my memory is a problem. Recently I renamed Chris Vocci as Cecil - who runs the 7550 giant crane. Earlier I mixed Jack Foley and Michael Hebb. These guys and/or their families quickly point out my errors and so, help improve the accuracy of this story.

Recently I met Mickey Rogers whose Advanced Blasting Services is responsible for the concrete explosive work. Mickey has become another of my professors and helped me to understand the preparation of the columns for explosive removal. As the project moves into its explosive stage, I shall bring more of the insights from these teams - as they teach me something of their art.

posted at: 07:53 | path: | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 19 Sep 2005

September 19, 2005: Another kind of construction, reconstruction and demolition.

From time to time, I have experienced a convergence of events that can, by no means, be a coincidence. Last Thursday I visited friends that were my PhD students while I was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Patras in Greece. As husband and wife, life is a bit strained at the moment with one working in Patras and the other working as a Post doctoral fellow in the Physics Department at the University of Potsdam, German. Potsdam is just outside Berlin and so I spent the weekend with them in Berlin. Friday was raining so we spent it at the University. Saturday was blue sky everyone with cotton puffs for clouds.

I had two requests - to visit the Brandenburg Gate and to visit the Wall. The story goes like this. In November of 1989, a colleague from the University of Freiberg. During dinner we discussed as a family, what was happening in Eastern Europe. Each day, stories of trains of refugees passing through Hungary and into German became stronger and stronger. I asked my friend, what about the Berlin wall - will it ever come down. Without hesitation, he replied - "not during my life". Later we turned the TV on and watched the evening news as the Berlin Wall was coming down. So to visit Berlin and not touch the wall - impossible.

Here is the Brandenburg Gate - as seen from the north and from the south

I was a big fan of John le Carre - a British spy novelist - and the Brandenburg Gate was a point of spy exchanges - Checkpoint Charlie. More strong emotions here than I expected - and a more complete story is included in the stories page

As you can see, there is construction in Berlin, reconstruction and memorials of past structions designed to contain and restrain interactions among free people.

posted at: 13:26 | path: | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 14 Sep 2005

September 14, 2005: Fixing the Grace Bridge

Lee Graves in Tomball Texas found our web site and contributed the following story from his father, James R. Graves, senior designer of the Pearman Bridge.

"I recently discovered your website showing the "unbuilding" of the old
bridges.  My father, James R. Graves, was the senior designer of the old
Pearman bridge so I feel a real connection with the two bridges. Several
years later he was made Bridge Engineer of the SC Highway Department.  You
probably do not know a very interestoing story regarding the old Grace
bridge.  During construction of the Pearman bridge, it was discovered that
the old timber pilings supporting the first pier of the old bridge on the
Charleston side were virtually eaten away by marine worms and the old bridge
was in real danger of collapsing, and in fact the old bridge was leaning
several feet out of plumb.  It was decided to put a cable around the old
pier, pull it back into alignment, and pour a concrete casing around the
remains of the timber pilings.  When the old bridge is demolished down to
the piers, you might take a close look at the footing of that first pier."

And just to keep life interesting - here is today's projection of Hurricane Ophelia. Ophelia has been just sort of chillin' out a bit - about 150 miles east of Charleston. NOAA provides a very useful service with their projections and advisories. I've included these on the main bridge web page. We have a more compresensive aggregation of weather related images at MUSC.

Infrared Image and the NOAA projection (click image for full presentation

posted at: 09:19 | path: | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 28 Aug 2005

August 28, 2005: My surprise: The skill and precision of demolition

I suppose I always thought that demolition was just another destructive process - that of removing components until all the structure was reduced to a pile of rubble. Was I ever wrong. Watching and talking with the Testa and Jay Cashman guys, I have found that there is skill, precision and a bit of art in their work. Skill to work the giant grapples, jackhammers and shears. Precision in removing segments of the road, cleaning the underlying I-beam surfaces (on the Grace and Pearman bridges) or cutting the rebar that formed the concrete supporting structures along the Grace and Pearman approaches and exits and art - somehow instinctively knowing what and where to apply their what I call, surgical tools.

Just as I learned of the precision (fractions of an inch) required to join the edge girders of the new Ravenel Bridge, I have learned from the Cashman and Testa workers that unbuilding requires similar precision. I was trained as an electrical engineer - where precision was part of the discipline. I suppose I was quite guilty of looking at my civil engineering colleagues as working with precision that was less demanding and "close enough for highway work". Was I ever wrong! I have totally reversed my understanding of demolition over the short month since the demolition of the Grace and Pearman bridges and approaches started. Another demonstration that even at my age (64 next week) - continued learning is possible and even necessary.

posted at: 08:35 | path: | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 16 Aug 2005

August 13, 2005: Another very pleasant surprise

Sparky Witte, a long time resident of Mt. Pleasant, grew up with the Grace and Pearman bridges. With the Ravenel bridge he has enjoyed being able to walk and bicycle across the bridge, admiring Mt. Pleasant to the east and Charleston to the west. He also can watch the unbuilding of the Grace and Pearman bridges.

Last night, Sparky sent me a group of photos of the July 30 events - the race and the old car parade. Moreover, he had taken quite a bit of time to track the demolition of the I-26 and Meeting Street overpasses. I was unable to stay for all the I-26 work Sunday morning and missed completely the Meeting Street overpass demolition. So here is part of Sparky's gift - a group of photos that provided timely tracking of the unbuilding process. I have added the Meeting Street work to the main page (tracking the progress over the past days) as well as to the Meeting St. page. His photos of the extraction of one set of supporting piers (and cap) as been added to the Engineering Challenges page.

Among his photos was one of him - posted above. Clearly, Sparky has brought new life to our web page, adding photo input to the engineering input I receive from many people. Sparky - you're the greatest!

posted at: 16:27 | path: | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 13 Aug 2005

August 13, 2005: A suggestion to Mayor Riley and the Transportation Board

During the construction of the Morrison Street on-ramp, bicycle and pedestrian walkway, there was an obstacle at the base of the Pearman bridge. A vertical support structure prevented paving a small section of the bicycle lane. A small wooden platform was built around the Pearman supports - a sort of detour.

With the demolition of the Pearman and Grace moving ahead (briskly), I understand that this platform will be removed when the vertical supports are removed, then bicycle lane paving will be completed. But what a perfect spot to place a few park benches so that walkers can stop, rest and contemplate not only our wonderful bridge, but life, the universe and everything. So what about this option, is it possible to modify the contract with Cashman-Testa to not remove the wooden platform and for the City to populate it with a few park benches - particularly useful to maturing adults (age > 60)?

posted at: 08:08 | path: | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 11 Aug 2005

August 11, 2005: A little weather and a little web page design.
During the construction of the Ravenel Bridge hurricane cables were installed to provide some lateral stability under high wind loads. At the same time, I was exploring how to harvest weather data from NOAA and the National Hurricane Center so that MUSC faculty, staff, students and worried parents of students (and perhaps worried parents of faculty / staff) could view primary data without visiting multiple web sites.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami provides RSS (Rich Site Summary) feeds that are small, Internet accessible, data files that include links to weather advisories and storm projection graphics. From these links we wrote a short script to periodically download the updated advisories and satellite imagery and storm projections. Our MUSC site presents this and other harvested data on a single web page.

For the demolition project, I thought it would be useful to present a minimum set of data so all of us could follow the interactions between the weather and bridge demolition. Now, Satya Phanse, one of my guys in the IT Lab thought it would be useful to selectively display or hide my introductory remarks and worked out a short segment of javascript that enables you to display or hide web page segments.

I learn by example, so I copied Satya's example, adapted it to our bridge page and after 1 mistake (mine) - it works.

posted at: 08:00 | path: | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 10 Aug 2005

August 10, 2005: Demolition in full swing
While I always understood that building required more time than unbuilding I never really felt the difference. Tracking the construction of the Ravenel Bridge, in retrospect, was a leisurely activity. Tracking the demolition (I prefer unbuilding) of the Grace and Pearman structures (bridges as well as approaches) is turning into a twice daily affair - early morning (6am) and early evening (6pm). I'll keep this schedule as long as possible. The folks at Jay Cashman - Testa have been fantastic and helped me understand not only the demolition process but the sequencing required to manage demolition without shutting Charleston down for 6 months.

posted at: 09:24 | path: | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 21 Jul 2005

July 21, 2005: Transition from building to unbuilding

The construction of the new Cooper River Bridge is complete. The fireworks and opening ceremony, from my perspective, breathed new life into our community. Certainly use of the bicycle and pedestrian walkway during the first days demonstrated both their utility and the vision of the bridge sponsors.

There is a first chapter and a last chapter with every story and our bridges are no different. I have started preparations for keeping our stories alive, now as historical documents. As a first step, I am moving the Internet address of the Ravenel Bridge story to This will provide a stable location and facilitate transition of the site to a future home, perhaps the Charleston Public Library or the Historical Society. I have not explored this with any agency, but it seems to me that our web site (yes, not mine) would be better preserved under the leadership of a public agency.

Yesterday I started the first chapter of the unbuilding of the Grace and Pearman bridges. I have moved the Internet address for our new story to I shall continue to take weekly, and in some cases, daily (early morning and late afternoon) photos of the Charleston approaches, Mt. Pleasant approaches and the main bridge spans. In addition, I will build a new section addressing engineering issues and insights, similar to the Engineering and Close-ups section I developed around the construction of the Ravenel bridge.

Many of you have fed me ideas and questions. As we start our new story, please continue to write me. Let our learning continue!.

posted at: 13:16 | path: | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 16 Jul 2005

July 16, 2005: The meaning of a signature bridge

Yesterday, Vince Streano, David Wertz and I revisited the top of the west tower. It was almost 1 year ago (July 21, 2004) that David and I visited the top of the west tower - at that time looking at a number of bridge engineering issues. Among them was the cabling process managed by Olivier Forget from Freyssinet - and the time was near the end of "le Tour de France". During an earlier visit to the top of the west tower, I noticed a concrete tablet on the floor (upper left) with the names of many of the construction workers. Dumb Frank did not record this photographically at the time. This time I was not going to repeat the same mistake twice. Not only did I take several photos of the tablet, but I found Philip Cotter's and Lewis Williamson's names on the tablet. Philip and Lewis are iron workers, a very special breed of man that suspended themselves while erecting edge and floor girders and placing the concrete floor panels. Philip's wife, Tina, exchanged a number of emails with me about Philip and his artistic and literary skill - naming the last main-span crane (east side) the "Last Dinosaur Standing" (see for the dinosaur story).

Here, permanently placed on the top of the west tower is a symbol of the worker's bride. Many signatures are absent - but the pride runs all the way from Bobby Clair through Wade, Peo, Marvin, David and Olivier all the way to me - as these folks opened doors that enabled me to bring to you much of the untold stories behind building our Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.

And a final note about the Internet and learning. The Internet provided me a medium that enabled me to share with you what the bridge folks shared with me. Not only that, the Internet provided a communication medium that linked me with Bill Mankin at High Steel, with engineers at the Federal Highway Administration, Bridge Division, with Buckland and Taylor, T. Y. Lin, HDR, Freyssinet and Tidewater Skanska. Governor Sanford and Bob O'Brien even provided input. In the end, Bob has suggested that I explore transfering this web site to the Historical Society or the Library - a wonderful strategy for breathing new life into these pages.

So from me - smiles and a big thank you to all of you!
Frank Starmer, Medical University of South Carolina.

posted at: 13:02 | path: | permanent link to this entry

Write me:
frank.starmer at

March 2006
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31