by Charlene Weigel
The New NY Bridge is rising, but what do we know about the men and women building it? John McCullough and Alessandra Rosso, field engineers for Tappan Zee Constructors, talk about heights, wind and their work on the river.
What’s a typical day?
McCullough: We’re building Piers 31 and 32 – the tallest piers. You start between 6 and 6:30.
Rosso: Your phone starts ringing and doesn’t stop until 7 p.m.
McCullough: Sometimes I’ll bring a backpack of drawings, books, references, camera. Sometimes coffee. Sometimes lunch, but sometimes you don’t eat lunch. Superintendents call for the fabrication. How do we erect this? Does it have to be in this order? Inspectors want to know when we’re going to test. Foremen asking for tools and materials. We want to get those materials to them so they are not sitting around or delayed.
Rosso: If it’s small, like a hammer, you can bring it. Anything substantial the laborers bring. If it can’t be carried by hand, you need a crane or some equipment. It does happen where you get stuck on Pier 31, and there is something you need on 32, and you have to start asking for favors. Can I have the crane for just five minutes?
What are you building?
McCullough: We work on the main span superstructure. Most of the stuff now is on a cycle. We pick up the steel, the big blue sections you see, bolt it up, make sure the bolts are good and that they have the right number, follow procedure and that everything is fitting right.
Rosso: You have 10 guys or so I’ll see every day. We put the cables in. After that we put in precast deck panels – chunks of concrete that you set down on the steel. Then you stress the cables again. You install steel between those panels and pour concrete. The glue that binds it together makes one cohesive unit.
McCullough: And then you do the other side. So the bridge is balanced. We just put an elevator up. Before it was a lot of stairs. At 150 feet, we’re at the road deck where everyone is going to drive. To get up to the cables inside the tower, we have to climb.
Rosso: The top of the tower is 419 feet above sea elevation. There’s seven ladders that are about 12 foot – also a 20-foot ladder and another four six or seven-foot ladders. A lot of the platforms that you stand on you can see down to the water.
McCullough: There is just grating underneath you.
Rosso: It’s unnerving at first.
McCullough: One of my first days they’re like, “Just walk on the ends and hold onto the top and shim out there.” I looked around and go, “You’re crazy.” So one of the inspectors went out with me.
Rosso: [You’re tethered] to specific anchor points.
McCullough: Tested per OSHA. 5,000 pounds of force.
Rosso: You have two hooks. If you have to move, you go back to the last one and unhook.
How do you get to the bridge?
Rosso: Crew boats. Some are 12 guys max. [The affectionately named “party barge” is the largest, carrying 65-80 workers.] There is a radio channel. You tell them where you are and where you want to go.
McCullough: The people moving everybody and materials, they don’t get enough credit.
McCullough: Everyone brings their own.
Rosso: Some of the crane operators have coffee. One crane operator used to cook meals, obviously within safety regulations. I was working with the lather crews at the time, and he would make them all lunch.
McCullough: Whatever weather.com says does not apply. If there’s wind, you have to double or triple it.
Rosso: You’ll see a cloud up river, and it’s on you in a half hour.
McCullough: We have restrictions on wind. If it’s raining, the steel gets slippery and the ironworkers don’t go out. No one takes any chances.
Rosso: Each craft has its own hazards. Carpenters and laborers are more likely to work in the rain. No one is allowed to work in lightening. You have to take cover in the towers or the man shanties.
McCullough: Those are cargo containers made into break rooms.
McCullough: We have boats bringing water. I always feel bad for the people doing most of the work.
Rosso: Sometimes they bring a rag, wet it, and put it on the back of their necks or in their hard hats. No one should be alone in case of heat exhaustion.
Rosso: We stay moving, wear multiple pairs of socks, hand warmers, special gloves, pants under pants, shirts under shirts. Everything is tucked into something. Then you have to use the bathroom. You’ve ruined it all, and you’re freezing for the rest of the day.
Those colored helmets with stickers?
McCullough: Usually white means supervisor. Red means you’re new. They might be in a union for decades, but they come out here and they’re the new guy.
Rosso: You get a sticker for different trainings. Unless on break, you are only allowed to talk on your cell phone if you’ve got a phone-authorized sticker. That one’s from Tomkins Cove yard. An operator gave them out. I worked with Local 46 with the lathers so I have a 46 one just for fun.
What surprises you?
Rosso: The workers. I don’t want to say they are unfazed but they are professionals. They go in and get it done. I still take pictures of everything.
McCullough: The uniqueness of the experience. The work site is three miles long with no good foundation for a couple of hundred feet. There are four companies, thousands of people. The magnitude is insane.
What do you wish people knew?
McCullough: There are hundreds out there right now whose stories aren’t being told. People take pictures of workers and see executives on TV. But there is a whole range of positions- those laborers work really hard and nobody knows about them.
Rosso: The bridge was built by humans. Sometimes people forget that.