Sweat, Steel, and Stealth

Retrofitting the Bay Bridge will take five years, hundreds of workers, a million bolts, and 19 million pounds of iron. The hardest part? Making sure no one notices.

"It was like a treasure hunt. Each time we found [a portion of the plans], there was no way we could have made some decisions if we had not had that information."

Once the retrofit design was finished, it went through extensive scrutiny by a review panel of experts. Still, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to seismic science. "You're never 100 percent certain [about seismic retrofit work]," says Dr. Frieder Seible, a UC San Diego engineering professor who sat on the design review panel. "But these are educated guesses based on science and technology and past experience. We are putting the best retrofit on this bridge at this time."

Among the uncertainties were the dampers and bearings. The devices to be used on California's toll bridges are so big they had never been tested at full scale before, and no one knew how they would react during an earthquake. Both the review panel and a state advisory board insisted they be tested at full scale before installing them on the bridge.

The only problem was, a machine big and strong enough to test the dampers and bearings didn't exist. So Caltrans built its own at UC San Diego -- at a cost of $15 million.

The lab, built in two years, is the world's only machine capable of simultaneously exerting 12 million pounds of pressure on an object while shaking it with the intensity of an earthquake that could destroy a major city. It tests bridge components not only for Caltrans but for other countries as well.

The machine is about the size and shape of a large swimming pool and the color of a neon blueberry. Though it was designed to circulate the forces within itself so it doesn't create mini-earthquakes, sudden stops of the machine jolt a large part of the campus. It is a machine so powerful it can push bridge components to the point of destruction. ("Things fly all over -- it's spectacular when it fails!" says lab director Gianmario Benzoni.)

The Bay Bridge bearings "did very well" in these tests, Benzoni says. The dampers will be tested sometime in the next few months.

Once Caltrans finished its retrofit design in 1997, it began taking bids from construction companies across the nation. It took the companies months to figure out how to accomplish the retrofit with the lowest price tag. Eventually, Caltrans settled on two companies to execute the mammoth project, which, according to those companies, might be the hardest job in their history.

No two of the 100,000 pieces of steel on the Bay Bridge are exactly the same, so the construction companies had to send teams of engineers in hard hats and harnesses scurrying over the bridge for up to a year and a half, taking precise measurements so the steel could be fabricated with all the bolt holes in the right place.

The construction companies also had to hire the labor to perform the retrofit work, which proved to be a challenge amid the current building boom in the Bay Area.

On any given day, the Bay Bridge is swarming with a small army of construction workers. Young civil engineers in mountain-climbing harnesses clamber over the bridge to inspect and measure it. Painters with sandblasters start work in the wee hours of morning to remove lead and paint, using thousands of pounds of synthetic sand. The piercing clatter of the ironworkers' rivet busters reverberates through the bridge as they install huge pieces of metal -- some the size of a family sedan and weighing 3,500 pounds -- that have arrived by truck on the bridge only moments before.

The men and handful of women who have signed on to the Bay Bridge retrofit as ironworkers are a breed of construction worker that, without blinking, will brave near-freezing temperatures and screaming winds to fling around tons of metal from spectacular heights. They smoke like chimneys, sling insults like water balloons, and spit out swear words as if they were chewing tobacco.

They get paid about $25 an hour, and have joined up for the challenging and long-term Bay Bridge retrofit work for a combination of two basic reasons: the stable money and the bragging rights.

A few are like Bill Trull, a "boomer," or one of the guys who moves from job to job, going where the work takes him. Trull, a looming, four-fingered Oregonian, is from Local Union 29, and he made the trek to San Francisco to work on the Bay Bridge because it's "like the eighth wonder of the world."

The 20-year veteran had been in Portland for five years. Before that he was in Montana, and before that Alaska. Now Trull lives in a hotel room in Fairfield, and though it's equipped with a little kitchenette, he finds himself eating a lot of bologna sandwiches.

"It gets a little lonely, but when you get in town for a job, you meet people and stuff, other guys," he says, standing at the edge of the steel yard on Treasure Island as he packs up his things at the end of the day. "[Ironworkers] are a brotherhood. You come into town not knowing a soul, and the next week you know 20 or 30 guys."

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