Kulpmont man spent an interesting career in explosives
Editor Note: This story was published in the August Issue of Coal People magazine. Stevens is a native of Shamokin.
KULPMONT - Ron Smith, of Scott Street, has had a very interesting career in a very dangerous world of high explosives. At the age of 20, Smith applied for a job as a deliveryman truck driver for Sam Bressi, a Hercules explosives distributor.
His job was delivering dynamite and blasting caps to small "bootleg" coal mines, driving his truck over rough roads carved out by bulldozers, making between 40 and 50 stops a week.
"The mines were small operations, maybe three to five miners, without a lot of money to spend," he said. T"hey couldn't afford to be buying cases of dynamite like the big mines," Smith related. "It was all pretty casual. I'd show up on a schedule and see what they needed. I remember the Girardville Tunnel job. It was on a slope and about a quarter-mile long. I'd walk into the tunnel, then bang on the pipes at the far end to let the guys up above know I was there. They'd hear me and come down to place or pick up their order.
"I got a good break when Bill Nipper of Atlas got me involved in blasting. I learned about designing a blasting plan and drilling pattern for mining. I got to be good at cast blasting, and that got me off of the delivery job and into a new field of strip mining and quarries."
Explosive cast blasting is as much a method of pit design and equipment utilization as it is a method of blasting. Cast blasting is a type of blast design which uses the surplus explosive energy to move overburden material across the pit. It is most frequently employed in coal mines to remove overburden from above the coal seam. This is achieved by arranging pits in long and narrow configurations that facilitate the movement of the blasted rock into the previously mined pit. This technique allows approximately 25 to 50 percent of the rock to be moved without the use of mine equipment.
Cast blasting can be employed with a dozer push operation that follows the casting operation. The combination of these two techniques can typically remove 60 to 80 percent of the overburden that originally existed over the coal seam.
Smith recalled the days of transition from dynamite and blasting caps to the use of ammonium nitrate-fuel oil (ANFO) blasting agents. These agents represent the largest industrial explosive manufactured (in terms of quantity) in the United States. This product is used primarily in mining and quarrying operations. The components are generally mixed at or near the point of use for safety reasons. The mixed product is relatively safe and easily handled and can be poured into drill holes in the mass or object to be blasted.
"My cast blasting skills led me into quarry work, and eventually into demolition projects. In 1980, I founded Cheri-Lee, Inc. an explosives supply company, in Kulpmont. I got involved in demolition after a major flood, when a number of damaged bridges had to be taken down."
No second chances
"The one thing I learned about demolition work is you can't do it twice. It has to be right, period," Smith said. "I remember a silo demo job involving two silos. One came down in pieces, while the other one went up in the air, turned over and landed upside down in the mud."
Smith's demolition skills led to railroad bridges and smoke stacks as well.
A further use of Smith's explosives knowledge came when Smith, an avid pilot of small aircraft, attended an air show and saw pyrotechnic effects being used to simulate a strafing and bombing run by vintage military aircraft.
"Many years after my first encounter with pyrotechnics for air shows, I accepted an offer to stage an air show and got into this new world of entertainment. I do a plan for the show, plant the explosives as needed, and set off the charges from my hand held device, coordinating the blasts with the plane's motions. I really enjoy the effect on the crowd watching the show."
Smith's flying hobby continued as he serves as chairman of the board for the Northumberland County Airport. Among fellow pilots he is usually referred to as "Commander Ron," due to his flying a Rockwell Commander aircraft.
"I've had a great career with explosives, from selling single sticks to bootleg holes to sculpting with explosives to staging pyrotechnics for air shows. The people I dealt with are the best I ever met," Smith said.
Any accidents with explosives?
"No, I never had any real close calls," Smith said. "Either I was lucky or good. Always knew what it would do."