Problem With Wrecking Ball Delays Demolition of Crippled Big Sur Bridge

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The buckled Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 in Big Sur. Caltrans began work Monday to tear down the damaged span. (Stan Russell/Big Sur Chamber of Commerce via Caltrans)

Update, 11:50 a.m. Tuesday: The Caltrans contractor hired to knock down the once-unnoticed, now-troublesome Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Big Sur has run into a problem: Its wrecking ball was not up to the job of demolishing the span.

The take-down project began Monday. The Monterey Herald's Tommy Wright has the details on what didn't happen and why:

The contractors tasked with the demolition had trouble getting the crane’s free-fall function operating properly as they tried to slam the wrecking ball into the bridge.

“The crane, in its current configuration, will not free fall the wrecking ball with the required force needed,” said Susana Cruz, a Caltrans spokeswoman, in an email. “New parts have been ordered and should arrive (Tuesday).”

Work could resume on the demolition as soon as Wednesday morning, depending on the delivery and assembly of the new parts.

David Galarza, Caltrans’ structure representative for the project, said crews disconnected the bridge’s metal railing in preparation for the demolition.

“Everything’s in place for it to go, but some of these new cranes have a lot of different safety features on them and they’re all computerized,” he said.

Galarza said the crew has specific locations identified where they can expose the primary reinforcement and cut it.

“That should assist with the bridge dropping in a location we want it to,” he said.

As soon as crews work out all of the kinks, Galarza said the demolition should take two days at most.

Rather than swing the 6,000-pound wrecking ball with the crane’s 305-foot arm, the operator dropped it on the bridge from about 5-feet high once work got started at about 12:30 p.m. Monday. By dropping the ball instead of swinging it, crews avoided nearby power lines. Jim Shivers, a Caltrans spokesman, said it’s also part of the strategy to bring the structure down in a controlled, methodical way.

“There’s precision when we build these things and there’s precision when we take them down,” he said.

Original post (Monday): Caltrans went to work Monday tearing down a Big Sur bridge that began to collapse last month after a long siege of heavy rain.

Crews positioned a heavy crane near the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Monday morning, and just after noon began the mind-numbingly repetitive process of picking up and dropping a wrecking ball on the span to break it up. It looked like it would take awhile.


The loss of the bridge, closed Feb. 15 as mudslides threatened its supports and the roadway began to buckle, makes it virtually certain that Highway 1 will remained closed to through travel until sometime in 2018. The internationally known highway is the main route for the estimated 3 million tourists who visit the area each year.

The Pfeiffer Canyon span itself is anything but an architectural marvel. It's a short, plain vanilla highway bridge that most travelers probably never noticed as they cruised between Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, just north of the bridge, and classic tourist spots like the Nepenthe restaurant, south of the span.

But what the bridge lacks in "Then Came Bronson" panache, it makes up for in strategic location.

As Lisa Krieger of the San Jose Mercury News noted in a report this past Friday, the span's closure last month effectively split the remote Big Sur community in two -- at the same time that a series of major slides had shut down Highway 1 both to the north and south.

“We’re severed in half … with two of the most amazing cul-de-sacs in the world,” Kirk Gafill, manager of Nepenthe, told Krieger.

Earlier this month, volunteers worked with Monterey County officials to organize an airlift of food, water and other supplies to several hundred people stranded south of the crippled bridge.

Caltrans has now managed to partially reopen Highway 1 south of the bridge, allowing shipments of fuel and other necessities to be trucked into the affected communities.

The highway agency is estimating that crews will finish clearing a major slide between Carmel and Big Sur by midweek. It says three big slides to the south -- at Lucia, Gorda and Ragged Point -- will take another week to clear.

Meanwhile, the only means of travel for those who want to get from the north side of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge to the south side is likely to be on foot -- by means of a steep, half-mile trail built in recent days by the California Conservation Corps, state parks workers and local volunteers.

The changes in the remote community, normally overrun by out-of-towners who even now are besieging locals with questions about whether their summer vacations will be ruined, aren't all welcome. From Lisa Krieger's report:

... Mother Nature has emerged, evoking a time when the region was an unexplored and unmapped wilderness. ...

“I am hearing the creek running down the canyon below us for the first time in my life.There are no cars, no people,” said Erin Gafill, a landscape artist. “Waking up this morning, I heard five distinct bird calls.”

Neighbors stroll down the center of Highway 1, exchanging greetings. “It’s like having Main Street right here,” said Big Sur Fire Brigade medical captain Jeannie Alexander. “We’re taking the time to breathe and just be with Big Sur.”

But there is anxiety over the future. The foot path will only help the able-bodied, during daylight hours. And it may not be enough to support all the employees needed to staff the famed retreats.