Friday, September 29, 2006

Blast From the Past

March 27, 2000

The big event in Seattle on March 26th was not the Academy Awards but the implosion of the massive concrete structure known as the Kingdome. It was a structure designed to stand for a thousand years. However, the whims of a billionaire and the vote of the people made the 24 year old structure turn to dust in 18 seconds.

I wanted to witness this event live. I felt cheated when I wasn’t able to convince my friends to celebrate the new millennium at Times Square and the city of Seattle was cheated out of their own celebration on New Years. So, this Sunday I was fortunate to have the day off to scout out a location and get a good view of history. It took place at 8:30 in the morning, which meant that I would stay out all night dancing and stay in Seattle to witness history. I chose a grassy knoll location near Harborview Hospital which overlooks the Pioneer Square area of Seattle which contains the Kingdome. I made a good choice for several reasons.

I arrived by bicycle at 4:30 in the morning. There were about 8 people there. I sat near a group of people who were sitting on a bench that had a view blocked by some tall evergreens. The three women were good friends who befriended the guy who was there. They were friendly and about my age, so I felt comfortable hanging out enjoying their company. The guy was by himself. We all had one thing in common. We wanted to see this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Twenty four years ago this would have been unthinkable. When the Kingdome was built, it was part of the trend of building multi-purpose stadiums. The Kingdome was unique from Three Rivers and Riverfront in that it was topped off by the world largest self supporting concrete roof. It was the ninth wonder of the world.(The Astrodome in Houston was the 8th) The Kingdome was the symbol of civic pride. It enabled the city to acquire two professional teams, the NFL Seahawks and baseball’s Mariners. The Kingdome was built with efficiency in mind. It housed at times 4 professional teams (Mariners, Sonics, Seahawks, Sounders) and had many other events like Monster Trucks, rock concerts, home shows, and boat shows that were too big for conventional arenas. At first the Kingdome was considered a great venue for events but soon after a few rock concerts by Wings and Led Zeppelin, it developed a reputation for having lousy acoustics. This lousy acoustics was a key factor in the Seahawks early success. It allowed the fans to make so much noise that it proved to be a distraction to the opponents. A NFL rule about excessive crowd noise was created due to the Kingdome’s acoustics. The Mariners on the other hand were not well served by the Kingdome. The capacity of baseball was large, about 55,000. The Mariners were sub par team for the first 15 years of their history. The size of the Kingdome emphasized the lack of fans attending the games and it seemed like a tomb at times.

I had been in the Kingdome for about 8 games of baseball, 2 games of football and one rock concert. I went to a Mariners game the day after I arrived in Seattle in 1991. I was spellbound by what I first saw upon entering the seating area. I had never been in a bigger indoor building in my life. I had not seen Astroturf before and was pleasantly surprised at the temperature inside. The crowd was pretty good in size, about 24,000. The fans were quiet though. I had been used to going to Mets or Yankees games were the crowd was raucous and obnoxiously loud. After the game got slow I started to figure out the shortcomings of the Kingdome. At Shea Stadium, you get a gorgeous view of Flushing Bay, which makes up for the ugliness of Shea Stadium itself. Yankee Stadium is a grand structure with a good view of buildings of one of the most dangerous areas in NYC. The Kingdome on the other hand allows your eyes to wander to the gray ceiling covered by the infamous ceiling tiles that fell in 1994. This quote by Mariners announcer, Dave Niehaus says it all. "And Randy Johnson points to the sky…that is covered by the roof!!" The fact that Randy Johnson’s signature gesture to his dead father seemed obstructed by the roof made me vote for the construction of a new baseball stadium that would become known as Safeco field. This would mark the beginning of the end of the Kingdome.

The Mariners were making noise that they could not survive as a franchise if they continued to play in the Kingdome. They always had a hard time convincing people it was a good idea to go indoors in August to watch a team who was not in the playoff hunt. The team needed to be really good in order to get people to sacrifice warm sunny evenings to attend indoor baseball. A close losing initiative vote convinced the government to fund a new baseball only stadium. They came up with the idea of a retractable roof stadium located just south of the Kingdome. It opened in 1999.

The Seahawks was threatening to move because the lack of luxury boxes would not allow them to "compete" in the NFL. Paul Allen-billionaire, bought the team on the condition that the Seahawks would get a new stadium in exchange for his purchasing the team. An initiative passed and after debating where it would be built, it was decided to be built on the grounds of the Kingdome itself. This set the motion for the Kingdome’s demise. The last event in the Kingdome was when the Seahawks lost to the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs was in the Kingdome. Soon, after the game the procedure began for the final show, the implosion of the Kingdome.

So, we decided that the view we had could have been better if we moved to a grassy knoll that was next to a former homeless haven. The grass was wet from the night dew but the women had the foresight to bring sleeping bags and a plastic tarp. The tarp was large enough to accommodate the five of us comfortably. The women even brought donuts! I was planning on making this an endurance test and these kind women made it so I would have comfort food and a dry spot to sit. (They were cute to boot!)

The sun started to rise and the Kingdome in all its concrete gray glory faced its last dawn. The columns and the roof were all that remained. It looked like the Roman Coliseum without its outer shell. The sun was warm and touched places inside a building built to shelter patrons from Seattle’s inclement weather in the first place.. It looked eerily beautiful with black tarp covering the columns and the stripped down roof with its black look. We can see boats of all sizes arriving in increasing numbers into Elliot Bay. People were gathering on the rooftops of the buildings that were in close range to the Kingdome. It was 7 AM and I took a catnap. I awoke to see the crowd around us double in size. Ken, the man who met the women before I arrived tuned in his radio. The atmosphere was getting festive with children being dragged out of bed to witness something that may thrill or terrify them.

The excitement was brewing when 8 o clock passed. Only thirty minutes to go. People who brought cameras were getting ready. The highway below us was now closed to traffic. The people were gathering at the wall screaming. An impromptu wave started. It was 8:25 and the excitement was reaching a fever pitch. Everyone in our little group were rubbing our hands in anticipation. "4 minutes!" Ken shouted. "Two minutes!" Ken shouted again. "ONE MINUTE!!" All eyes were focused on the doomed Kingdome, I don’t think anyone blinked, that will wait til later. 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1…………….nothing….It turned out the radio got a precautionary countdown but the feed from the demolition crew was now counting down for real. 10, 9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, …..OH MY GOD…..first came the streaks of red light flowing up and down the ribs of the rooftop, it looked a little like the fireworks display that Seattle should have had on New Years. It was followed by some small puffs of smoke. The loud booms followed and the columns started to buckle, finally the roof collapsed inward. It was an awesome sight! It was so quick, a building built to withstand earthquakes collapsed like a house of cards. I was sad. The show wasn’t over though. The smoke created by the implosion rose high into the air and moved north towards the downtown area. The King Street Station clock tower was quickly erased by the dust. The men who were standing on top of a large crane soon was covered with dust. The historic Smith Tower would be next. It was gone. The cloud of dust continued to cover everything in its path. People were grabbing gas masks. Others were running away filming the event with their camcorders.

Meanwhile on the hill, the people started to walk away because, although we were not directly in the path of the cloud of dust some bits of it was raining down on us, covering our jackets and shoes. The cloud still covered the area where the Kingdome once stood. Some of the buildings close to it were starting to appear through the fog. Finally, we can bear witness to what effect the blast did. It was like a Polaroid picture developing before your eyes.

Slowly, the fog lifted, and it became clear that the demolition team did their job well. I nearly cried when the sight of mangled steel and broken concrete started to appear. The crowd started to thin out, it was time to leave. We parted company thankful that we had good people to enjoy probably the most famous implosion in history. I’m thankful I was not alone but sad that I will probably never see them again. However I will remember Ken, Julie, Katie, and Shari whenever I think of the Kingdome, because for all its minor faults, the Kingdome was a fine place to take the family to see fun events and I will miss it, although the men’s room with its trough like urinal deserves the fate of the Kingdome itself.

2006 Update: Like many cities at the time, multi-purpose stadiums were replaced by individual stadiums for football and baseball. Seattle has Safeco Field for the Mariners and the Seahawks play in what is now called Qwest Field. Safeco is splendid, one of the best venues for baseball. It's clean, has great views, and the seats are comfortable. Qwest Filed is an improvement but not much better than what a renovated Kingdome would be like. I like though, that the Seahawks continue to play in a very noisy venue and the Hawks nest is cool. I'm now3 looking forward to what the Mets will bring to the table cuz Shea is getting to be a dump.

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