Mighty Crane Tackles Tough Demolition Job

Posted: December 05, 1991

It's been 50 years since the last train chugged over the Petty's Island railroad bridge. Several decades past its prime, the corroded span was torn down last month.

Of course, tearing down a 73-year-old steel and cement bridge, some of whose sections weighed hundreds of tons, was no easy feat. But the folks at Citgo, which owns the island and the bridge, had some help: the massive Chesapeake 1000, the largest ocean-going crane on the East Coast.

Looming off Pennsauken like a tugboat on steroids, the massive crane churned up the Delaware River while taking apart the bridge piece by piece the week of Nov. 18.

"Pretty impressive, huh?" gasped Ray Smith, Citgo terminal manager, as he watched the crane slowly, ever so slowly, lower the bridge's twisted and rusting trestle onto a barge. "You don't see that every day."

The trestle itself will be sold for scrap, but a huge cement counterweight - which allowed the bridge to swing out of the way for passing ships - is soon to be underwater, part of an artificial reef off Cape May.

The crane had to lower the trestle with utmost precision. To put it down a few feet off balance, said Smith, could have meant the difference between the trestle's making it to the scrap heap or having it and the barge capsize.

As Smith watched in awe, a helicopter buzzed around overhead, filled with engineers watching every step of the process. "Guess they want to make sure the demolition goes smoothly," Smith said.

It did. But salvage work has not always been so smooth for the Chesapeake 1000, so named because it can lift 1,000 tons. A few years ago, the crane was known as the Sun 800. Then it ran into some unexpectedly heavy weather.

"She was caught in a storm up the coast," said John Witt, vice president of Donjon Inc., the Hillside company that owns the rig. "The boom came off and they had to replace it. It used to be able to lift only 800 tons. Now it can lift 1,000."

That storm may have been the best thing ever to happen to the Chesapeake 1000, or at least to Donjon. Now the rig has no equal, at least outside the Gulf of Mexico. That means it is in great demand from Maine to Florida's Atlantic coast.

"She is very versatile for us," said Witt. "We use the rig for heavy lifting. We can lift heavy cargo off ships or do heavy demolition work, like the railroad bridge. The crane can also do salvage work off the bottom."

Salvage work, said Witt, makes up a large portion of the Chesapeake's workload. Such assignments, however, are hardly the stuff of movies. The rig has never raised an old Spanish galleon or any other romantic flotsam. Old tug boats and cargo barges are more its style.

"Commercial salvage work has been somewhat sensationalized in the movies," said Witt. "The work is hardly like what you can see in Raise the Titanic. Actually, the work is rather mundane."

Don't tell that to Pete McCarthy, project manager for the J.E. Brenneman Co. of Camden - lead contractor on the $1 million demolition job.

McCarthy has been building things and taking things apart for years. But this was the first time he ever employed anything as big as the Chesapeake.

"This is a pretty unusual job," said McCarthy. "I can't say that I've ever worked with anything like (the Chesapeake)."

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