Opinions mixed over toppling of Asarco smokestacks

By Diana Washington Valdez / El Paso Times

Hundreds turn out for demolition

A man watches the former ASARCO stacks from an overlook before they came down Saturday. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times)
A man watches the former ASARCO stacks from an overlook before they came down Saturday. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times)

Elva Archuleta held her breath while she watched Asarco’s towering smokestacks tumble down early Saturday in West El Paso.

She and eight others spent the night in the back of a pickup to ensure that they would have a coveted viewing spot northwest of the former smelter plant.

“Four generations of Archuletas worked at Asarco,” she said.

“We booked rooms at a hotel nearby, but we wanted to be out here for everything. I held my breath when the big stack starting coming down. Now, there’s just an emptiness where the stacks once stood.”

Hundreds of others, many with kids, baby strollers and pets in tow, lined up in the pre-dawn hours to witness history in the making. They were armed with cameras, cellphones and tablets, ready to savor every moment and share it with the rest of the world.

Ralph Jennings, 55, a miner, joined the throng after driving in from Carlsbad to watch the widely publicized demolitions.

“My grandfather, Lucio Valdez, was killed at the Asarco smelter in 1935 when he was run over by a cart carrying ore,” Jennings said.

“He was 57 years old. He lived in Smeltertown. I was born and raised in El Paso, and I had to come back to see this. It’s the end of an era.”

El Pasoan Raul Ordaz, 47, a CPA, said he cased different areas along the West Side to come up with the best viewing place for the massive demolitions. He, his wife, Ellen Ordaz, and, Alice McLaughlin, another relative who flew in from New York for the event, claimed their spots by 5 a.m.

“We wanted to see this because it’s historic,” Raul Ordaz said.

“I’ve wondered why the city couldn’t put the new baseball stadium on the Asarco site, with the big smokestack as a landmark.”

McLaughlin said, “As I flew in, people on the plane were talking about the demolition.”

Robert Puga, trustee for the Asarco cleanup, had said that residents of Calavera Canyon, the neighborhood nearest the demolition, were given the option of staying at a hotel courtesy of the trustee.

“About 10 families took us up on the offer,” Puga said earlier last week.

Ramon Paz, right, a 30-year employee of Asarco is helped out of a truck by his daughter, Marisa Jacquez at an overlook point off Executive Center Blvd. Saturday before dawn to watch the former ASARCO stacks go down. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times)
Ramon Paz, right, a 30-year employee of Asarco is helped out of a truck by his daughter, Marisa Jacquez at an overlook point off Executive Center Blvd. Saturday before dawn to watch the former ASARCO stacks go down. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times)

James Johnson, a longtime Calavera Canyon resident, said Saturday that he opted to stay at home. He and a neighbor walked to the smelter cemetery and saw the demolition from the slag area next to the cemetery.

Border Patrol agents instructed several people to leave the cemetery area before the blast, but Johnson was able to remain in his spot.

“We wanted to see the demolition from the bottom. Every thing went well, but I think there was more dust on impact than they had expected, and most of it blew toward the southeast,” Johnson said.

“We didn’t have any problems with the neighborhood. They came by to assess before the demolition, right after the demolition, and will return again in a week.”

Ignacio “Nacho” Cubillos, an employee at the University of Texas at El Paso, said he scouted a few places a couple of weeks ago before deciding that the hillside north of Paisano Drive and west of Executive Center was the ideal one.

“It offers a panoramic view,” Cubillos said. “It’s sad to see that they didn’t preserve the stacks. I brought my cameras to capture the history of this moment. It’s been so much a part of El Paso for so long.”

Dave Smith, 49, sat in a lawn chair waiting for the moment of impact. “I didn’t think there would be this many people showing up to watch,” he said. “I didn’t want to miss it.”

The sounds and atmosphere wowed the crowd, which watched as four helicopters and three gliders flew overhead. Police vehicles could be seen blocking access to Interstate 10 in Central El Paso, Executive Center Boulevard and West Paisano. Juárez residents could be seen across the Rio Grande watching the spectacle.

Robert Parra, 42, a registered nurse, took his three sons, Nathan, 18, Angel, 12, and Gerardo, 8, who cuddled Leon, their pet Chihuahua dog. It was still dark as they walked around slowly to keep from tripping or falling on the rocky ground.

“We got up around 4 a.m. so we could make it from Socorro in time to see everything,” Robert Parra said. “I felt it was important for my sons to see this landmark before it disappeared forever from our landscape.”

There was a loud blast and a pause before the smokestacks came down. People gasped as the giant structures toppled over in what seemed to be slow motion.

The demolitions that lasted just under 35 seconds were over at 6:55 a.m.

“The blast was scary. It was exciting to watch. It was also pretty sad,” said Annette Coy, 37, who sat on a rocky hillside where others had gathered.

Barbara Donell headed back to the American Best Value Inn and Suites, at 500 Executive Center, where several people had booked rooms for the demolition or simply stopped by later for coffee and a light breakfast.

“I live in El Paso but my brother, John Stokes, drove down all the way from Socorro, N.M., just to see this,” Donell said.
“You got the sense from watching that there’s going to be a change.”

James Chung, general manager of the American Best Value Inn, said most of the hotel’s customers who checked in Friday were there for the demolitions.

“We average about 60 percent occupancy on a regular day,” Chung said. “But, because of the demolition, we were sold out.”

For decades, the red and white smokestack with the Asarco name that towered 826 feet high served as El Paso’s most recognizable landmark. The chimneys appeared in El Paso’s earliest postcards.

According to Save the Stacks, an organization that fought to save the chimneys, the taller Asarco stack ranked in height between the Washington Monument (555 feet) in Washington, D.C., and the Eiffel Tower (1,063 feet) in Paris.

Irma Muñoz, a Sunland Park resident, and her brother, Oscar Muñoz, who lives in Clint, laughed when they shared a quirky connection to Asarco as their reason for coming out to watch.

“My brother Oscar realized one day that his name contains the same letters as Asarco, only in a different order,” Irma Muñoz said.

“That was enough for us to make the trip out here. We, too, booked a hotel room nearby so we didn’t have to fight the traffic, and we could take our time getting to where we could see. When the stacks came down, it was as if something was dying, while a new chapter was beginning.”

There was a slight breeze, not a strong enough wind to postpone the inevitable when early morning sunlight began breaking on the horizon.

Frank Gallardo, 62, held his hand to his heart when the sound of the falling stacks thundered through the area, which is encased by hills on both sides of the border.

Gallardo worked as a sampler for “La Smelda” (as many called Asarco) from 1972 to 1999 and spent the night on the hillside to wait for the demolition.

He stood on the back of a pickup and proudly held up a blue Asarco flag.

“This was the original flag that flew at the Asarco smelter,” Gallardo said. “I felt a great sadness when I watched the stacks came down.”

The crowd that turned out to witness Saturday’s demolitions did not cheer over the death of the structures that belonged to refiners that had operated in El Paso for more than a century.

When it was over, as dust enveloped the smokestacks’ remains, most of the people scattered across the hillside east of Executive Center put away their cameras and walked away quietly.

Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at dvaldez@elpasotimes.com; 546-6140.

Source: http://www.elpasotimes.com/newupdated/ci_23019609/opinions-mixed-over-toppling-asarco-smokestacks