Terry Barrett the powder man stood on the edge of a fifty-foot cliff he was about to destroy. As he spoke he pointed downward to the pit of a granite quarry, where there sat a huge, noisy machine called the jaw crusher. The jaw crusher’s work was to chew up beachball-size hunks of granite and spit out tiny pebbles, which would then be used commercially to make cement and asphalt. Barrett’s job was to feed the crusher, and it was almost out of food. To do this he had to blow up the cliff on which he now stood. If everything went well, he would instantly turn the cliff into a pile of rubble but not do the same to the crusher, which sat about thirty yards away. “To protect the crusher, I loaded the center of the cliff heavy with explosives,’’ he said. “I’ll blow away the center of the cliff first by a matter of milliseconds. Then I’ll blow the cliff by the crusher last. The explosion by the crusher will blow in and out toward the center, which will be the weakest point. Explosives always go in the direction of the weakest point.”
The inexperienced eye would have difficulty seeing any weak points in the doomed granite cliff — 17,900 cubic yards of rock and earth that stretched 150 feet along the quarry pit. But then, 12,000 pounds of explosives can surprise the inexperienced eye. And sometimes even the experienced eye.
“If my blow throws the crusher, a lot of men will be out of work,” Barrett said as he and powder helper Frank Aguayo unloaded a box of dynamite sticks from their trunk. “But you watch. The crusher will stay clear. At least, I hope we can see the thing after the blast, or my heart will be broke.”
The crusher and the granite pit are operated by a company called WYROC; this particular pit is located in the rolling hills south of Highway 78 outside of Vista, one of several quarries scattered throughout North County. WYROC hired Barrett’s company, M.J. Baxter Drilling of El Cajon, to prepare and execute this “shot,” as the blasts are called. The preparation took place the day before; a fifty-foot-tall rotary drill mounted on a tractor bored 178 holes straight down along the top of the cliff. The holes ranged from depths of twelve to thirty-six feet and were about five inches in diameter. They were spaced in rows about ten feet apart.
Into these holes Barrett and his assistant packed their explosives, as if they were loading up a battery of old-time cannons. First down the vertical shaft was a stick of dynamite, with a blasting cap attached. On top of this Barrett poured about one hundred pounds of very powerful nitro-carbo-nitrate pellets, known as ANFO. (The primary ingredient in ANFO is ammonium nitrate, which is commonly used for lawn fertilizer. The ammonium nitrate is turned into an explosive simply by the addition, in the right proportion, of fuel oil.) Finally, on top of the ANFO pellets, Barrett and his assistant packed dirt, which they referred to as “stemming.”
The ANFO pellets looked harmless, even though they are much more explosive than the stick of dynamite, which looked a lot more sinister. (A state safety consultant, when asked about the dangers of handling dynamite, attempted to dispel misunderstanding by saying, “You could drop a whole box of dynamite and nothing would explode. You could even stick a black-powder fuse in dynamite and light the fuse and it wouldn’t explode. Dynafnite needs a big shock to explode.”) To provide the shock necessary to detonate the dynamite, Barrett attached a single electrical blasting cap to each of the 178 sticks. These little aluminum tubes can pack a wallop. “A cap is like a hand grenade,” Barrett explained as he gingerly inserted caps into the ends of dynamite sticks. “I've heard about a cap that went off and the shrapnel went 150 feet. But nobody was hurt; the guys,
I guess, were in the right place at the right time.” An electrical current would detonate the cap, the cap would detonate the dynamite, and the dynamite would set off six tons of ANFO pellets. And the cliff would come tumbling down in a roar, exactly as Barrett planned it.
State officials say that no explosives accidents have been reported in San Diego County for at least the past seven years, but the kind of blasting Barrett does nevertheless has a nasty reputation in some parts of the county. Besides the dust and noise that give rise to general complaints about quarry operations, there is the matter of flying rock after a big shot. “A skillful powder man knows to fragment the rock he needs to a lift of only three feet,” says Mel Sharrar, who is Barrett’s foreman at the Baxter Drilling Company. ‘‘But some blasters lift rock a hundred feet, and that’s when a blast is uncontrollable.” Barrett adds that some powder men have launched explosions in which “power lines have been knocked down and houses showered by rocks. There’s a lot of |granite) rock all over the Escondido area, and for any [commercial or housing] developing, you can count on blasting. People up in North County are getting pretty uptight over all the blasting.” Escondido, in fact, has the county’s strictest blasting regulations. Virtually every area in the county requires that the local fire department be notified twenty-four hours prior to a blast, but Escondido also requires that every structure within 600 feet of a blast area be checked by an engineer or seismologist before even the smallest explosion.
Naturally, Barrett and his associates have to take safety precautions of their own. Principal among these is preventing the unexpected detonation of blasting caps by radio transmissions.
Between the time each explosion hole is packed and left with dangling wires from the blasting caps and the time those wires are all connected to the machine that will set off the big boom, the wires can act as sensitive antennas. Any moderately powerful electrical signal could detonate them. When Barrett has worked to widen portions of Interstate 15 and Highway 94, signs have been posted that request highway patrol officers and truckers with CB transmitters to forgo transmissions within the posted blasting area, as those signals could touch off an explosion. And when Barrett works in a neighborhood to blast a swimming pool or water and sewer lines or a home foundation, he or an assistant travels from home to home in search of ham radio antennas. If they find one nearby, they’ll knock on doors and warn of the danger. Even static electricity from rain clouds and lightning can detonate the blasting caps, and thus Barrett must also keep one eye on the weather as he prepares for a shot.
A few times each week he has powder headaches, which are similar in intensity to migraines. ‘‘Dynamite has a high nitro content,” Barrett says. “I handle lots of dynamite all day. When the weather is warm, dynamite sweats and seeps in through your skin and you breathe the nitro. That increases the size of your arteries and that lowers the blood pressure and forces blood to flow [away] from the head. I have headaches. I’m irritable. You can get mean with a powder headache and pretty touchy. So when I go home, I shower and immediately go to sleep. A lot of the guys who could work with powder don’t want to. All the responsibility comes down to you — and the headaches and stress, too.” Barrett, who is thirty-three years old, came to his profession through a family tradition of sorts — four of his brothers have worked at Baxter Drilling. After graduating from El Cajon Valley High, where he played varsity basketball, he attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he again played ball. But the combination of classroom claustrophobia and a severe bout with pneumonia led to his leaving college and returning to San Diego, where he hired on at Baxter in the explosives trade.
Bad weather and sluggish economic conditions in the recent past have diminished his working days, but lately he’s been blasting six days per week all over the county. In a typical week, such as in early October, he blasted rock to make building pads and grade roads for the Avocado Estates housing development in El Cajon. At Avocado Highlands, another El Cajon development, he blasted sewer and water line ditches.
Another day he worked below Mount Laguna for the U.S. Forest Service, blasting huge boulders out of a stream bed for a bridge crossing. Still another day found him checking the seismology of a site in El Cajon, but blasting was delayed there when archaeologists discovered some Indian arrowheads. (Barrett didn’t like that. ‘‘I’m as much a part of history as those arrowheads,” he said, “and I need to work.”)
Barrett recited other varied jobs:
‘‘I did a blast a little while ago, on Highway 79 by Green Valley Falls.
I’ve grown up in the area and used the road all the time, but I always hated those blind curves where the earth hangs over the road and you can’t see oncoming traffic. And now I’m the one blasting out those dangerous curves.
“I’ve done Highway 94 when boulders roll out on the road and tie up traffic. I’m the one who blows them up so they can be pushed off the highway. Those jobs are great. Everybody wants the road clear, everybody is on your side. I’ve done the aqueduct by Fallbrook. I helped blast the dam for Lake Poway. By my home in El Cajon I blasted pads for the Fieldstone development on Rattlesnake Mountain. All my neighbors came to the blast. They had a party and watched me blast away rock. The developer left my caps’ old wires dangling out of the earth as a reminder of the work I did.”
Earlier this summer San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock used Barrett’s old red T-handle push plunger for the groundbreaking ceremony of Brittany Village, across from University Towne Centre. Barrett drilled three sets of four holes, which he filled with red, white, and blue chalk. As Hedgecock pushed down the T-handle, red, white, and blue clouds puffed up forty feet in the air. Of course the push plunger Hedgecock used hasn’t been employed in blasting in this area in nearly fifteen years and wasn’t used that day either. As the mayor pushed down the plunger, Barrett, hiding nearby, threw some switches on his sequential blasting machine and touched off the decorative explosion.
This sequential blasting machine is now a standard piece of equipment for powder men like Barrett. While the old push-plunger machine can detonate fifty blasting caps at best, a sequential machine can set off several hundred caps. This is the main advantage of the sequential blasting machine — many different blasts milliseconds apart can be detonated within one blast. For a large blast, such as the one about to take place at WYROC in the hills of North County, it’s necessary to create a multitude of explosions, and to do so in a particular order that will insure proper collapse of the granite cliff. Without the sophisticated circuitry of a sequential blasting machine, Barrett would have trouble properly detonating 178 blasting caps. As he scampered about the cliff connecting wires from blasting caps to other wires running to his machine, he noted, “This separation of explosions allows for bigger blasts and much better rock fragmentation, as well as less vibration when I blast by homes.” All activity at WYROC ceased at three o’clock. Gravel trucks stopped shuttling back and forth; the dirt road to the quarry was barricaded. A tractor dumped one last load of boulders into the crusher and then bulled up a dirt grade out of the pit. Men by the crusher moved out. Barrett’s crew went to a lookout point. Only Barrett remained on the hill, and he confided, “They (the quarry workers] lose perspective here. They get to know you. They call you ‘One Shot.’ They think you’ll always make the blast just right. They’re getting closer and closer every time I blast.” Sure enough, a large group of quarry and office workers stood by their cars about 1000 feet away at the edge of the pit, despite warnings that they should drive out a safe distance.
They talked and laughed as though this marked the beginning of a sporting event.
In the distance Terry Barrett could be seen dropping his hand, his signal that detonation had begun. A low rumble emanated from the direction of the cliff, then grew quickly in strength, as if a squadron of supersonic jets was screaming in at treetop level. And then — boom! A shapeless, spreading cloud of reddish-brown dust rose above the cliff and shrouded it in a mist, and the cliff disappeared. Suddenly confusion reigned as rocks the size of basketballs came hurtling through the air across the pit and landed all around the gathered crowd of workers. People dove behind cars, rocks flew in every direction, crashed onto windshields and car hoods; some began to hit the roof of the nearby weigh station. More rock poured down. There were shouts to take cover!
Where the cliff had once risen imperiously, a hill now sloped gently, covered by granite boulders. The entire area was obscured by dust and it was silent. I looked down at the crusher in the pit. Boulders had rolled up to the edge of the machine but, as Barrett predicted, had left it untouched.
By the time the quarry had come back to life, Barrett and his crew had already piled into the cab of the company truck, which had big red letters on its side spelling out EXPLOSIVES. Barrett stopped the truck and leaned out the window. “I guess I used a little too much powder today,” he said with a grin. “I hate to rush off, but once a job is finished. I’m ready to go. I guess you might say I like to hit and run."