This Excavator Was Toppling An Old Smokestack When Suddenly The Unthinkable Happened

Tim Phifer had tried all he could to take down a 158-foot smokestack remotely. When that failed, though, he climbed into an excavator. The digging machine did the job, but something went horribly wrong as the huge tower began to fall.

Phifer, a native of Pell City, Alabama, was a construction worker by trade. As such, he presumably relied on his knowledge of building – and demolishing – as he attempted to take down the 115-year-old smokestack.

The old structure was part of an historical site in its local area. It was once a part of Avondale Mills, a chain of textile mills located mainly in Alabama, although there were factories in South Carolina and Georgia, too.

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Avondale Mills began producing textiles in 1897, and, after 109 years in business, they closed their doors in 2006. Nearly a decade later, in November 2015, Phifer found himself trying to take down the chimney.

The construction worker had already had two goes at bringing the smokestack down. Phifer used explosives in a pair of attempts, but the 1,300-ton structure didn’t budge. For his third attempt that day, he tried something different.

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A drone hovered above to film as Phifer sat behind the wheel of an excavator. A crowd gathered to watch, including his daughter and members of his construction team. The vehicle, typically used for digging, sat right next to the smokestack.

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The drone footage shows the excavator’s arm extended, with Phifer maneuvering it up and down. With each movement, bricks fall away, but the chimney’s structure remains unchanged – until a crack spreads across the base.

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The rapidly growing crack cuts right across the bottom of the 115-year-old structure. And, with the base of the smokestack compromised, the entire tower begins to fall at an incredibly quick pace. As it does, another crack appears higher up.

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The footage shows how this second fracture traces up the side of the brick-built tower nearest the digger. Rather than falling down to the ground in the same safe direction, though, a small section topples off to one side – directly towards the excavator, which swings out of the way just in time.

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Unfortunately, though, that was just a taste of what was to come. Most of the tower had yet to fall – and it began to topple in the same direction as Phifer and his excavator. In the video recording of the demolition, someone can be heard in the background shouting, “No, no, no!” as they look on in horror.

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With that, the tower plummets to the ground and lands right on top of the excavator – with Phifer still in the driver’s seat. Filming from overhead, the drone clearly captures the footage of the huge pile of bricks crashing down on top of the digger.

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Those gathered to watch Phifer’s demolition rush from their safe spots on the sidelines to help, not knowing what state they’ll find him in. His daughter, Allie, was one of the onlookers, and she later admitted she had been understandably wary of looking inside the excavator.

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She told an ABC News reporter, “I remember being halfway across the field and just looking at him. I had to stop, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if he made it and I can’t make it that much closer.’” With dust still rising from the fallen tower, others rushed right to her dad’s side.

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And the drone’s camera is still rolling when a clue as to Phifer’s condition appears. Right next to the cab of the excavator, one of the rescuers – who is not easy to distinguish on the film – lifts both arms into the air, appearing to cheer.

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The recording picks up a voice in the background exhaling as they say, “Nobody died.” Then, the camera gets closer to the excavator as Phifer walks out of the cab on his own, despite a 2.5-million-pound structure having fallen on his vehicle just seconds prior.

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Although the drone hovers closer to the construction worker, it simultaneously captures a view of the excavator and the extent of the damage to it. Rubble is piled on top of the cab, and some of its bodywork appears bent by the impact.

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But after those behind the camera get visual confirmation that Phifer is okay, they send the drone back for a closer look at the excavator. Rubble is piled up inside the cab, too, perilously close to the chair in which the construction worker had been sitting.

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Fortunately, the cab itself was designed for this type of emergency situation, Phifer told ABC News shortly after the incident. His face blackened by soot, he claimed he saved his own life by choosing to remain in the driver’s seat, since the digger was “made for that thing to turn over on top of it.”

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Phifer added, “It was safer inside the cab than coming out of it.” The fact he walked away from such a dramatic incident with only dirt on his face and a few scratches on his body rather proved his point.

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Taking a moment to reflect, Phifer said of his unexpectedly eventful demolition attempt, “I’ve had some stuff go wrong but not like this.” However, it was clear he also realized how lucky he was to have walked away. “God blesses me,” he said.

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