SWOYERSVILLE — The owner of the demolition company that razed the Hotel Sterling in four days was killed Monday when the steeple of St. Mary’s of Czestochowa Church toppled onto an excavator he was operating to demolish the former church on Shoemaker Street.
The collapse happened at about 11:40 a.m. when most of the church had been brought down and only the steeple was left standing.
John P. Brdaric Jr., 60, owner of Brdaric Excavating and Buck Mountain Quarry in Swoyersville, was in an excavator on top of what remained of the church when the steeple fell.
Witnesses said the steeple “swayed” and “wiggled” before it fell onto the excavator.
About 12 to 15 crew members from Brdaric’s companies rushed to the mangled excavator that was covered with bricks and stone.
“They were cursing, yelling ‘Hurry up, hurry up,’ ” said Ted Klem of Swoyersville. “They were cutting metal, using a gas cutter to get at him.”
Emergency crews from Swoyersville and Forty Fort removed Brdaric from the excavator’s crushed cab. He was rushed to Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Plains Township, where he was pronounced dead, according to the Luzerne County Coroner’s Office.
No problems early on
Demolition of the church began just after 7 a.m. Monday.
A large crane did most of the work, turning the church built in 1911 into a large pile of rubble. The crane removed the cross and dome from the top of the steeple before the job was turned over to two excavators to finish the job.
Klem, who was baptized and served as an altar boy at the church, and Glen Galion, of Jim Thorpe, said it appeared Brdaric was using debris to make “a mound” and “a ramp” to get the machine closer to the top of the steeple.
Galion, who was part of an asbestos abatement team, said the steeple swayed for several seconds.
“It looked like he was making a ramp, pulling wood, steel and bricks to get higher to the top when the steeple swayed,” Galion said.
“The excavation was going well and when they came up on the steeple, they stopped and they brought in the excavator and started pulling, pulling and pulling, and it was wiggling. You saw the steeple wiggle. There was no chance for him to back out. When it came down it just crushed him,” Klem said.
Other witnesses said the wind was gusty at the time of the collapse.
“If they kept going with the crane, I think it would have been fine,” Klem said. “When I saw what he was doing with the machine, I said to my friend ‘Something is going to go wrong,’ and it did.”
Crews began razing the church from the back and worked their way to the front. Electrical and other utility lines directly in front of the church prevented crews from demolishing the steeple from Shoemaker Street, which remained open during demolition but was closed during the emergency.
A representative from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration arrived at the site at about 2 p.m.
Officals praise Brdaric
Swoyersville Councilman Christopher Concert called Brdaric’s death a “total loss for the entire Wyoming Valley.”
“He did a lot for this community and neighboring communities,” Concert said. “I’m in shock. He was good to so many people.”
Concert said he was at the church before sunrise to watch the demolition. He praised police officers and emergency responders for their efforts.
“When we realized what happened, we started to pray. I cannot say enough for the Swoyersville Police Department, ambulance and fire department and his workers who were digging to get him out,” Concert said. “Our prayers go out to his family and the people who work for him. He treated his employees like family.”
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton also was “deeply saddened” by Brdaric’s loss.
Brdaric had just razed the Hotel Sterling at North River and West Market streets in Wilkes-Barre less than two months ago. It took the company four days to level the historic structure at the end of July; removal of debris took nine more days. Still, the job went much faster than the two months Wilkes-Barre officials had predicted.
“John was dedicated to his business and always made sure he did his job well,” Leighton said in a prepared statement. “He was well respected in the community and by his clients.”
Diocese expresses sympathy
Officials with the Diocese of Scranton also expressed their sympathy on Brdaric’s loss.
“On behalf of the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish community, the Diocese of Scranton is grateful for the efforts of first responders and others who immediately rendered aid to Mr. Brdaric. We offer our sympathies, thoughts and prayers to family members and friends of Mr. Brdaric, and to the employees of Brdaric Excavating, Inc.,” the diocese said in a news release.
The diocese reorganized parishes in the mid-1990s, turning St. Mary’s of Czestochowa into Holy Name/St. Mary’s Parish when the Holy Name of Jesus Church in Swoyersville closed. Holy Name/St. Mary’s closed in June 2012, joining with Holy Trinity Church to become St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish under another consolidation plan by the diocese.
Brdaric had previous experience in church demolition. His company razed the 96-year-old Sacred Heart Church in Luzerne in 2000 after a consolidation plan closed that building.
Brdaric has been a well-known name in the local construction and demolition industry for decades.
Brdaric Jr.’s father, John P. Brdaric Sr., also met an untimely death while working in the trade.
According to Times Leader archives, Brdaric Sr. was 59 when he refused to jump from an 40-ton steamroller that went out of control while being unloaded from a truck in Dallas Township in 1999. The roller, which was determined to have had inoperable brakes, sped down a hill, struck a tree, threw Brdaric Sr. off and ran over him. He died of multiple traumatic injuries.
Times Leader staff writer Steve Mocarsky contributed to this story.