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How Pittsburgh watched Three Rivers make its exit

Monday, February 12, 2001

By Jonathan D. Silver and Mike Bucsko, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Becky Rickard never bothered going to sleep Saturday night. What was the point? The 24-year-old from Mount Washington had invited friends over for a pre-implosion -- and pre-dawn -- shindig yesterday, and sleep wasn't an option.

"It's going to be sad to see it gone," Rickard had said a few days before the big bang. Now, the time was at hand.

2:45 a.m.

Guests started pouring into Rickard's Maple Terrace home, bedecked in black and gold, with a framed picture of Three Rivers Stadium in a place of honor atop the mantel.

Rickard sported a "Final Blast" T-shirt, a bit different from the black-and-gold jumpsuit she wears as part of the Bucco Brigade, an elite group of crowd pleasers that rouses fans at Pirates games through antics and games. Fittingly, she drank a beer called "Steeler" from Canada.

About the same time, Don Galla and his son, Joshua, left the Pittsburgh Hilton and Towers, Downtown, and walked across the street to Point State Park to stake out a prime viewing spot. They were joined by Steve and Angela Spencer and their 9-year-old son, Devon, of Lancaster, and Bob and Cindy Lucci of Center, Beaver County.

The Gallas, who came in from Hagerstown, Md., were dressed in Steelers uniforms. Don, his face painted black and gold, wore a jester's cap with "Cowher" emblazoned on the front. Steve and Devon Spencer had on father-and-son Steelers uniforms with Jerome Bettis' No. 36.

The Gallas, Spencers and Luccis, who met at the 1996 Super Bowl when the Steelers lost to the Dallas Cowboys, and dozens of others were prevented by police from entering the park. The few squatters who had already gotten in were quickly rousted by city police officers, who were alerted by park Superintendent John Samosky when he arrived for work at 3:30 a.m.

Back at the party on Maple Terrace, there was plenty of nostalgia to go around the room full of 20-odd twenty-somethings, who were surprisingly awake and alert considering the hour, except for one unfortunate sleeping soul whose face fell victim to a permanent marker.

"This is huge," said Erica Black, 23, of Mt. Lebanon. "Even though we were, like, negative 6 years old when it was built, it's huge to see the skyline completely change."

Lynn Kletter, 26, also of Mt. Lebanon, said she was sad.

"The only reason I'm up at 4 in the morning is the implosion," Kletter said. "I'm not even a huge fan, but I love tradition."

Of course you couldn't have a party commemorating Pittsburgh history without a Cleveland fan to bring everyone down.

"This is Pittsburgh for you," Cleveland native and New Castle resident Matt Twining, 23, loudly declared. "Nobody in the world cares. It's a stadium!"

Not quite true, that bit about nobody caring. CBS sent a production crew to film the implosion, as did NFL Films. And hundreds of drivers trolling for spaces crept up and down Mount Washington's narrow streets in the pre-dawn darkness, turning the hillside neighborhood into a little bit of New York City parking hell.

5:30 a.m.

On Oneida Street, would-be parkers caught a break by finding a lot with plenty of empty spaces. There was one catch, though. Instead of the usual $7 charge, lot owners had cranked the rate to $30. Not that anyone complained too loudly.

Before worrying about parking, people had to fret about just getting into the city and making their ways to the prime viewing sites Downtown, on the South Side and on Mount Washington. Traffic from the South Hills appeared particularly bad.

6 a.m.

Pittsburgh police Sgt. Bill Haines was forced to find an alternate route to the North Side for implosion-duty roll call because of heavy traffic on East Carson Street.

"It was like the Steelers won the Super Bowl," said Haines, who was stationed in Allegheny Riverfront Park between the Roberto Clemente and Fort Duquesne bridges.

Some South Hills transit riders were left standing at their Light Rail Transit stops because the trolleys from suburban communities were packed and Port Authority drivers passed them by.

As Haines reported for duty, police at Point State Park stepped aside and let the masses in.

"It was like a stampede," Angela Spencer said.

Around the same time, a sleek, white 33-foot-long limousine pulled into a North Side parking lot on General Robinson Street, about 100 yards east of the doomed stadium.

The driver, Jeff Pannier, vice president of Angel Limousines, opened the door for two guests of honor at the implosion: Mount Washington's Elizabeth King and her 16-year-old son, Joseph, who had won a raffle to push the ceremonial plunger.

"I feel good about this," Joe said.

"I'm nervous but very excited," said his mom, dressed in a heavy green parka and scarf to protect against the cold.

Watching them was Robert Kulinski of Baltimore, a member of the implosion crew from Controlled Demolition Inc. and an avowed fan of the Baltimore Ravens.

"Every time the Steelers come to Baltimore to play the Ravens, it seems like half the stadium is Steeler fans," he said in mock disgust. "So this [implosion] is revenge for me."

And, he added, referring to the frigid temperature, "Revenge is a dish best served cold."

6:15 a.m.

Up on Grandview Avenue, a small but growing crowd was staking out territory. People set up tripods, drank from thermoses and huddled in blankets.

Bob Lindsay, 48, a baker from Uniontown in search of a restroom, said he decided to make the trip for posterity.

"You can see it on TV, but it's not the same as seeing it in person," Lindsay said. "It's something to tell your kids about."

With Downtown still lit up in the background, a small knot of valet-parking attendants was working double time at the LeMont Restaurant.

Customers who had paid $50 a head for a breakfast feast filed through the cut-glass double doors into the mirrored vestibule with its chandelier and up the steps, where they were greeted by the maitre d'.

Rarely, if ever, has Pittsburgh seen so many people dressed so nicely before the sun came up.

Andrea Shields, 50, and Richard Gursky, 60, high school English teachers from Blackridge, were digging into their fruit plates at the bar, with Downtown laid out before them through the restaurant's enormous signature windows.

"The alarm went off at 4:30. We were cranky and got up," said Shields.

"This was her idea," Gursky said good-naturedly.

"It's not the same as on TV," she said.

"I insisted it was the same as on TV," he replied.

John Romig, 55, of Gibsonia, had an even better seat, right by the glass.

"I'm watching a nightmare disappear," he said.

A Houston Oilers fan, Romig still smarts over his team's Jan. 6, 1980, loss to the Steelers in a championship game at Three Rivers. An Oilers touchdown was disallowed in what some, including Romig, thought was a botched call by the referee. The Steelers ended up going to the Super Bowl, winning it for the fourth and last time.

In another room, Steelers legend Lynn Swann was waiting for teammates Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris to show. Swann was hardly choked up.

"When it goes, I will not be sad. What will take its place will be a better field, a better stadium for viewing the game," Swann said. "The memories don't live in the brick and the mortar. They live in the minds of all the people who watch."

Melanie Hite, 24, of Baldwin Borough, and her father, Dave, wore Pirates jerseys. Sitting in front of a big-screen TV in LeMont with a camera on the table, the Hites said they just couldn't miss watching a piece of history crumble.

Down the street, Sylvia DeMarco and three friends were readying cocktails and breakfast for a dozen people invited to watch from her deck at the Plaza, a condominium complex on Grandview.

DeMarco and the women, Dolores Willson and Julia Forker, both of Sharon, and Sally Rose of Ross, dubbed themselves the "Implosionettes" and began their celebration Saturday night at the Shiloh Inn.

For yesterday's event, the women, friends for decades, donned black sweat shirts hand-crafted for the occasion. The sweat shirts, designed by their friend Mary Kuster, had the word "Implosion" spelled out in gold beads and were adorned with gold stars and pompons.

John Vazquez, who sells his own brand of sweat shirts from his shop, Black & Gold Forever in the Strip District, arrived Downtown at 5 a.m. and set up a T-shirt stand along Liberty Avenue outside the Gateway Center subway station. By 6:15 a.m., the Downtown crowd was moving toward Point State Park, and Vazquez packed up his stand to follow the money.

The shirts Vazquez was selling featured a picture of Three Rivers Stadium on the front with footballs and baseballs beneath to signify the six championship seasons of the Steelers and Pirates. On the back was a picture of the stadium in the midst of the implosion.

"After they blow it up, it will be like a ghost," Vazquez said.

Across the street, an overflow crowd spilled through the doors of the McDonald's restaurant and onto Liberty Avenue. McDonald's was one of the few spots open yesterday within an easy walk of Point State Park, the destination of most people who came Downtown to view the implosion.

The fast-food purchase of choice appeared to be hot beverages, as implosioneers tried to stave off the 21-degree temperature.

6:30 a.m.

Not everyone was heading to the riverfront.

Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield had an invitation-only bash on the 30th and 31st floors of Fifth Avenue Place. The building's parking garage was reserved for partygoers and closed to the public.

Across the street, Highmark's office workers and their families brought coolers of food and beverages for another private gathering in Penn Avenue Place.

As the caterer arrived for the Highmark party, another group of implosioneers was partying with mimosas made from orange juice and champagne, Bloody Marys and doughnuts a block away.

Mike Leurent had parked his brother Paul's pickup truck at 9 a.m. Saturday on the roof of the Fort Duquesne/Sixth Street parking garage to secure a party and viewing spot.

The Leurents and six others were on the northwest corner of the garage roof armed with video cameras, and a couple of dozen other people lined the side along the Allegheny River. The youngish crowd whooped and hollered at their more sedate brethren who stood along the rail across Fort Duquesne Boulevard at the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

7 a.m.

Rachel Conine, 58, was pretty sedate herself as she shivered outside her front door on Grandview in a yellow short-sleeved implosion T-shirt waiting for guests to arrive.

Conine had the best view of all, a wall of glass sliding doors that perfectly framed Three Rivers Stadium. The New Mexico native had taken the apartment sight unseen in July thanks to a friend's recommendation.

As the aroma of cooking burrito ingredients wafted from the kitchen, Philomena Ford, 62, of Plum, and her husband, Bob, 63, walked in.

"Fifty-four years I've been going to the Steelers," Philomena Ford said. "I cried when they played "Auld Lang Syne" at the last game. I don't even know if I want to watch it. It's a sad day for the 'burgh. But I guess things go on."

With an hour to go, a line of people stretched part way down P.J. McArdle Roadway, where a rowdy group whooped as cars crawled past. In return, drivers honked. The line headed east for the length of Grandview, and by the time the blast went off, people were crammed four and five deep in some places.

Police officers kept a low profile on Mount Washington. As a result, people ignored the city's open-container ordinance and drank beer freely. Nevertheless, they remained mostly well-behaved.

Handfuls of observers seeking a better vantage hopped the fences and parked themselves on the Mount Washington cliff side. Impromptu chants of "Here we go, Steelers" broke out. Bonfires were set along Grandview Avenue and far below, between Station Square and the railroad tracks that parallel it.

7:50 a.m.

With a helicopter droning overhead, a blimp hovering, red-and-blue police lights twinkling in the distance, and a fleet of boats sitting on the river, Downtown looked like a city under siege as the sky lightened.

Thousands who lined the steps above the Allegheny River esplanade began to raise their voices as implosion time drew near.

Behind them, Gern Roberts stood next to a tree and handled a giant death face puppet that is to be part of a three-minute film on the stadium implosion. A camera operated by a student at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, where Roberts works, filmed the puppet with the stadium in the background as a message about death and rebirth, Roberts said.

"Out with the old, in with the new cycle of life sort of thing," he said.

Roberts said he's not the kind of filmmaker who agonizes in the editing room, so the film should be ready for viewing relatively quickly.

"I don't do a lot of editing," he said. "I just shoot stuff."

7:58 a.m.

As a police officer at Point State Park announced there was one minute left to implosion, the 20,000-strong crowd got louder.

Over at the Hilton, guests were ready and waiting -- well, almost all of them.

With the kind of timing only real genius can harbor, 3-year-old Rachel Haig of Ross awakened from a dead sleep. Rachel's mother dragged her from her bed to a window sill looking out on the stadium.

"Rachel, the building's going to fall down," her aunt, Debra Zielinski, said. "Well, not this building."

Rachel, her aunt, her mother, her brother, her sister and her grandmother -- everyone, in fact, except Rachel's grandfather, Joe Zielinski -- crowded to the window in Room 1510.

"C'mon, Pap," said Rachel's sister, Nicole, 19.

"Naw," Joe replied, staring at the TV. "I can see it fine right here."

7:59 a.m.

A series of bangs announced the implosion had begun. A thunderous ovation from the Point State Park crowd arrived as the stadium began to shift, then collapse.

On Mount Washington, there was no warning. Suddenly, amber lights flickered all around Three Rivers. The crowd perked up. The explosives detonated. Onlookers watched the stadium's slow-motion collapse, first the left side, then the right.

Then came the cheers. The enormous dust cloud followed, billowing ever larger, creeping slowly over the Allegheny River and the new Steelers stadium.

The park crowd grew momentarily silent as people realized they were downwind from the implosion and about to be engulfed by the gigantic cloud of concrete powder.

Many along the riverfront steps at the park remained standing, watching as the gray dust spread out. People in the rear began to bolt. Parents grabbed children and fled rearward to the park's entrance. The effort was pointless; the dust cloud moved faster than human feet.

People who had masks put them on. Others pulled their shirts to cover their mouths or tucked their chins inside their coats and turned away.

At 8:03 a.m., the dust cloud covered the park and obscured the view in all directions -- a quick lesson to the unfamiliar of the soldier's experience in the middle of an artillery barrage.

Five minutes after the implosion, the cloud had obscured any view of Downtown from Mount Washington, save for the upper portion of the Fort Duquesne Bridge's arch.

Fine powder settled on clothing and entered people's mouths. An acrid smell filtered up the hill. Ten minutes later, the sky was clear once again and the public could behold the destruction that was wrought.

It was hard to find anyone who didn't enjoy themselves or feel the trip wasn't worth it.

"Awesome," proclaimed Linda Heron of Monroeville, who stood atop a chair, her face covered with a surgical mask.

"It was cool," said Paul Vargas, 32, of Scott.

"Excellent," declared Patrick Miller, 36, of Shaler.

8:05 a.m.

Room 1510's window has stopped vibrating in the Hilton, but its occupants haven't.

"That was so cool," Debra Zielisnki said. "I've got tears in my eyes."

"Wasn't that something?" her dad said. "Sally Wiggin's got dust all over her."

Rachel and her brother were pretty much speechless. Their mom seemed satisfied that the video she shot through the window would satisfy her 10-year-old son, who passed this up for an indoor soccer game.

"I hope I got it," she said. "I think I did."

If she didn't, the Hilton was offering its own video -- for only $19.

Debra Zielinksi appeared satisfied. It was her idea.

"I think it's the best $180 we've ever spent."

8:30 a.m.

A few souvenir hunters approached guards at a security fence around the imploded stadium and asked for small chunks of concrete.

"I want a little piece of the rock!" shouted Gary Ferguson, who, with his friend Johnnie Bryce, had driven here from Toledo, Ohio.

The trip took eight hours because they got lost. They were just driving through the Fort Pitt Tunnel when the stadium went down, but they said the long journey was worth it.

Another rock hunter was Dave Pressler Jr., who drove up from Virginia to see the old house come down.

"They're blowing up the stadium and it's the same age as I am," he said. "So what does that say about me?"

Until dark

Cars lined the Fort Duquesne Bridge as their occupants tried to get a look at the rubble of the stadium. Some drivers even abandoned their vehicles and dodged traffic to get to the bridge railing, where they took pictures.

It was busy, too, on McArdle Roadway and on Grandview Avenue, where people also got out of their cars and aimed video cameras toward the North Side.

Pittsburgh police reported no major problems aside from illegally parked cars, several of which had to be towed, and traffic slowdowns caused by gawkers.

Staff writers Tom Barnes, Gene Collier and Johnna A. Pro contributed to this report.

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