EL DORADO — At 5 o’clock Thursday evening, El Dorado was the center of the universe … at least, in Arkansas.
For an hour, an almost constant stream of vehicles — SUVs, minivans, sedans, dual/single cab trucks, an elevated pickup on custom tires and even a Corvette — pulled in and out of the rain-soaked gravel parking lot of a derelict construction company.
People from every walk of life made their way to the lot off U.S. 167.
Almost to a T, those asked over a 15-hour window — many of them El Dorado natives — wanted to witness a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
After days of seeing images and videos of it sitting on a pad at Crossett Harbor and then being slowly pulled across the state, a 300-ton kiln furnace made in Italy had arrived for a night in the city of roughly 18,000 people.
The kiln, resting on a 12-dolly suspension beam dual-lane transport trailer, had just ended the second leg of a six-day journey. At the end of it, the kiln will arrive at the Veolia Thermal Hazardous Waste Treatment plant in Gum Springs.
“We’ve been following it ever since it got to close to Crossett,” said Rushell Meshell of El Dorado. “The Arkansas Department of Transportation has been putting a lot of it [on social media] and so we knew it was coming this way and we just thought we would come out here. We didn’t want to get stuck in traffic or anything. So we waited ’till it was parked to come out and look to see how big it is.”
Meshell, 62, said “I just think it’s the neatest thing ever.”
Like many others milling around the lot, Meshell used her cellphone to take pictures. That included one capturing her granddaughter, Emalynn, standing in front of the kiln, which was draped by banners that read “FEMA.”
No, not the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In this case, FEMA is the name of the Italian manufacturer that assembled the kiln before it was shipped to the United States.
The crew tasked with hauling the kiln across south Arkansas, employees of a Memphis-based rigging company called Barnhart, prepared to disembark for the night amid the local eyes.
“It’s been like a big parade today,” said George Burchfield, driver of the truck that trails behind and pushes the kiln’s trailer along at 5 to 20 mph. “It’s been so many cars coming in and out. Pretty cool.”
Burchfield has been hauling large loads like the kiln for roughly 20 years.
One of the superintendents of the operation, Anthony Foster, has been on the job for 32 years.
“It’s just a different, different animal,” Foster said of the kiln job. “This whole setup is totally different than what we’d normally do. This [trailer] is a piece of equipment that is homemade from Barnhart. It’s pretty interesting. It keeps us on our toes.”
As Foster and his crew wound down for the evening, they put equipment in the back of a truck that had two containers, both covered in stickers from places they’ve visited for operations: Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak and multiple locations in Texas.
Foster was pleased to see so many people stopping by the kiln’s temporary residence.
“I like seeing people that are interested in it,” Foster said. “Kind of sparks me up a little bit.”
Demetrick Andrews was another of those whose face showed amazement and disbelief at the massive load.
“Geez, that is huge,” Andrews said as he walked into the area, wide-eyed.
Andrews, a director at the local Boys and Girls Club and a pastor, was fascinated by all the hows and whys of the kiln’s transport; not because he’s interested in mechanics, but “I just love information.”
“I wanted to come out and make sure I saw this in person. I wanted to see it in person before they got out of here traveling at 20 miles per hour. That is insane.”
As he continued forward to personally inspect all 226 feet of the kiln, its trailer and the trucks helping guide them, Andrews remarked, “I should’ve brought my kids.”
7 a.m. Friday, El Dorado
The center of the universe was preparing to move.
The area surrounding the kiln and its trailer was now much more crowded than the night before.
The lot was filled by 10 white and green bucket trucks, from Kinetic Services and Versa Bucket, plus a slew of pickups.
As a crew from Versa Bucket worked to take down a highway sign to make room for a hard right-hand turn south onto a spur of Arkansas 7, about 17 Kinetic Services employees in bright yellow vests stood next to a truck, waiting to move out.
Alexis Alexander, a volunteer with the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce, walked back and forth across the lot.
She carried with her a box of El Dorado delicacies. While they looked like regular doughnuts, these were “SpudNuts,” doughnuts from a local shop and crafted from potato flour instead of regular flour.
She handed one to Rick Umfress, another Barnhart superintendent, as he drove by on his way out of the lot.
Close by, four Kinetic Services crew members worked to lift an electric line out of the path of the kiln.
One man extended an enormous measuring stick up toward the line.
Soon, in its place was a tall, flexible yellow pole, holding the line up above its resting spot.
Just after 8 a.m., it was time to move … slowly.
9:15 a.m. Friday, Smackover
Anyone tuning into KCXY 95.3FM out of Camden would have heard the country music station’s typical 9:15 to 9:30 a.m. program, “Swap Shop, Yard Sale or Pet Patrol.”
One woman called in to let listeners know about her own yard sale.
Just before hanging up, she shared a certain way to come so “you won’t get caught up in the convoy.”
At the mention of the kiln and its escort, the show’s host urged listeners, “wherever you need to be, hurry up and get there.”
At the bottom of the hour, he signed off saying “I got to wrap this up, because I’ve got a kiln to catch.”
30 Minutes Later
“This is what happens when you retire,” Bonnie Warwick called from the driver’s seat of her white Dodge Ram truck. “You have too much time on your hands.”
Bonnie sat next to her husband, John.
Bonnie, a former nurse, and John, an ex-Walmart employee, are retirees from Washington state. They now reside in Calion, a community right next to Smackover, a town with a population of less than 2,000.
They were among a handful of people waiting in their cars in the parking lot of a Murphy Sumac gas station, across the way from Smackover Motors on Arkansas 7.
They had attempted to watch the kiln from its resting spot in El Dorado, but hadn’t been able to find a parking spot.
The Warwicks arrived at the station around 7:30 a.m. to have breakfast and wait for the kiln’s slow, triumphant arrival.
“It’s one of the biggest things I’ve ever seen going down the road,” John said.
“I wanted to see it turn, how it navigates a corner,” Bonnie added.
Their wait would be a long one, especially in an area of the highway where a single bar of cellphone reception is hard to keep.
Eventually, a low-riding custom Dodge truck, with flame decals on the hood and “real trucks don’t have spark plugs” on the back window, pulled up near the Warwicks’ truck.
The truck was occupied by Harold Jones and his passenger, Rudi Galbert, both from Camden.
By 10:40 a.m., alerted to the convoy’s approach, the duo, along with the Warwicks and a few others, had exited their vehicles and stood along the highway or at a fence.
Across the highway, roughly 17 people watched from the car dealership.
A few bucket trucks rolled by first. Then a couple of Arkansas Highway Police cruisers rode by, lights flashing.
They stopped at the intersection in front of the gas station and dealership to divert traffic.
At 10:51 a.m., the main event arrived.
With a cluster of traffic and safety vehicles following in its wake, the 300-ton kiln from Italy rolled by, an American flag waving atop the lead truck.
The push truck, driven by Burchfield, honked its horn at the onlookers.
The convoy never stopped. On it went to Stephens, by way of Camden.
“It might not have been a thrill for you, but it was for me,” Bonnie said, once again in her truck. “I’m almost 70, so I’ll never see another thing like that in my lifetime. … Unless, you know, I haunt somebody and ride in their truck.”
While that was the end of Warwick’s kiln adventure, it wasn’t for Jones and Galbert, who were spending the day as kiln groupies.
Jones hauled large loads for 60 years, but he topped out at 200,000 pounds.
“I think everybody wants to see them make the turn,” Galbert said. “Everybody’s wanting to see that [in Camden]. … It’s worth the time and the effort.”
With that, Jones and Galbert hopped back into the flaming truck and rode off after the kiln.
Their once-in-a-lifetime moment wasn’t over.