Demolition begins Sunday at Joplin hospital

JOPLIN (AP) — Perhaps the most well-known and obvious reminder of the tornado that devastated Joplin in May is about to come down.

Demolition work will begin Sunday at St. John’s Mercy Hospital in Joplin, the hospital that was virtually destroyed in the May 22 twister that killed 161 people in the southwest Missouri community. Officials with Mercy, the parent company for the hospital, said Monday that a dual ceremony marking the start of demolition for the old hospital and groundbreaking for the new structured is planned.

“While we will never forget what happened here, taking down the hospital is another step in the process of removing the visible signs of the tornado’s devastation from the landscape,” said Gary Pulsipher, president of St. John’s Mercy.

The tornado cut a wide path through Joplin and hit the hospital particularly hard, knocking out virtually every window, killing and injuring several people inside.

The 367-bed hospital has served four states dating to 1896.

For now, St. John’s is operating out of a temporary space. Plans call for a new permanent hospital, three miles away. It will start with 327 beds and expand up to 424, have a second campus and cost more than $950 million. The opening date is 2014.

Implosion of the old hospital, along with the three medical buildings and rehabilitation center on the same 47-acre campus, is not an option because of old lead mines beneath the ground, mines that date nearly 200 years. Dan O’Connor, demolition project manager, said officials don’ want to run the risk that demolition charges and crashing debris could create an “uplift pressure” that could damage surrounding properties.

So crews will use a wrecking ball to tear down the hospital’s west tower. Specialized grappling equipment will reach up 15 stories to pull down the east tower.

Demolition work is expected to take six weeks.

Preliminary work has been under way since late last month, when crews searched the hospital to retrieve any keepsakes in good condition. Those included bibles, artwork, memorial plaques, stained glass and marble.

Among the pieces recovered is a 4-foot tall wooden cross from the emergency department waiting room. The cross will be mounted on a truck bed and lead the way from the demolition site to the new hospital site during the dual demolition/groundbreaking ceremony.

“The cross certainly has some scars on it,” said Terry Wachter, vice president of mission for St. John’s Mercy. “But those scars add character. Many of the pieces we’ve recovered will be relocated to the new hospital when it’s completed or placed in a tornado memorial museum.”

The steel, aluminum and copper in the buildings is being salvaged and recycled. Hundreds of tons of concrete and asphalt will be crushed and used as engineered backfill to make the land ready for redevelopment.

Mercy officials said windows and pieces of plastic piping from the sprinkler system have been saved so they can undergo testing to see how they weathered the storm.

Once the land is clear, the ground will be graded and seeded. Mercy has already donated 12 acres for a new elementary school that will replace two schools destroyed in the tornado. Construction begins in May.

Mercy is still weighing uses for the rest of the land. Among the ideas area a memorial museum with a courtyard and memorial garden.

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