Wrecking’s in his blood

By Eamonn Ryan

Explosives engineer Mike Perkin has helped shape South Africa’s demolition and dismantling industry since his arrival here from the UK in 1981. From those early roots, the business he founded, Wreckers Dismantling, has spread to many corners of Africa and the globe.

Mike PerkinWEB


When pressing the ‘go’ button, Mike Perkin still gets as nervous today as when he started more than 50 years ago.
Image credit: Wreckers Dismantling


 

Perkin performed the first implosion of a building in all of Europe, as well as the first by a non-American company in the US — the original home to implosion. When Australia wanted two of its power stations demolished, they called him to capitalise on his experience in having demolished five such power stations in South Africa, one in Mozambique, and seven in the UK. 

The 68-year-old has been involved in demolition since 1966 when he began working in Yorkshire with a jack hammer and 14lb hammer. Explosives weren’t used back then, not even for 30-metre-high chimneys, and he learnt his trade the hard way — by exercising extreme safety and care, as structures were demolished virtually by hand.

At the profession’s foundation

He was one of the founding members of the UK Institute of Explosives Engineers and is the author of authoritative manuals that are still being used as textbook manuals today. In 1981, Perkin came to South Africa as a consultant to Eskom to solve a problem at Matla Power Station involving a chimney that had partially collapsed during construction. This led to more tenders, and he consequently remained in the country. These were halcyon days for demolition, as the private sector of the day upgraded infrastructure, as opposed to the government of today that largely ignores old structures and even city buildings partially demolished by fire.

“There was a lack of knowledge of demolition at the time, everywhere in the world, and the only way to learn was by practice. I’d been fortunate in that up to the age of 28, I had gained sufficient experience in projects outside of populated areas, so I was able to gain confidence,” Perkin says. This was rare, and even today those skills remain exceptional. He cut his teeth in the business at a time when the industry in the UK was setting standards and formulating syllabuses for examinations as it became a recognised profession — something that is happening in South Africa only recently.

Because of the paucity of skills — and the dearth of demolition projects in South Africa — Perkin describes it as a dying domestic industry.

It takes a minimum of 10 years’ experience before one is competent to bring down a structure on one’s own, and it is exceptionally arduous work, involving 12–18 hours a day of laying dangerous charges. Because of the paucity of skills — and the dearth of demolition projects in South Africa — Perkin describes it as a dying domestic industry. Consequently, much of the work won by Wreckers Dismantling is outside of South Africa.

Veterinary’s loss

Demolition was not Perkin’s first choice. He had planned on being a vet but was discouraged by the seven years’ study, as he wanted to work and earn a living immediately. Though he never initially sought out the demolition profession, he has remained in it for over 50 years due to the satisfaction it offers. “You get enormous gratification from planning, executing, and bringing off the destruction of some infrastructure without causing damage.”

When pressing the ‘go’ button, he gets as nervous today as he did on his first-ever implosion. “Working with explosives and detonators is not something you can ever take for granted, as there are still many unknowns.” He has had a couple of occasions out of the hundreds he has carried out when towers or buildings only partially collapsed — usually because there were water pipes or ducts within concrete columns he had not been aware of and that had misdirected the blast. The first time took him by surprise (and Africa is the only place he has ever heard of that has pipes within columns), but he has since learnt to check. One of his most recent projects in Abuja, Nigeria, had a similar problem. The solution was to locate the pipes during drilling, which were then filled with concrete, and then had to be re-drilled — something that took additional weeks.

“We had to fly up two tons of explosives — but seeing the structure collapse with no damage at all made it all worthwhile,” Perkin says.

Where his heart is, is filling holes with explosives; work so dangerous that the only other person he allows to touch it is his son. That is because he trained his son Kyle himself, who is now the youngest qualified explosives engineer in South Africa for demolition. In the Abuja project, there were 10 000 such holes.

No crowd pleasing please

Internationally, demolition has become something of a TV and Internet spectacle, but Perkin says imploding structures and any form of explosives work is only 10% of the work in demolition. “For the rest, most of the work is out of sight, often done 50 metres up a tower manually. I prefer implosions to be kept low-key. Making a public spectacle of demolition increases the safety and crowd control risks. Explosives are just another tool available to the demolition engineer.”

Apart from bringing down all types of structures, Perkin says his other passion is teaching others the fine art of wrecking. In an industry suffering from a debilitating skills shortage, he has trained 10 of his key staff members to be the top of their trade. 

 

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