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.

But most of them are local boys, driving in each morning from Vacaville, Dixon, Folsom, or Sacramento, crossing the bridge that they work on every day. Most of them are young, some inexperienced, a reflection of the tight labor market.

They are like Brian Peck, who at age 23 is one of the youngest journeymen in his local union. Peck is a smiling, handsome blond who spends his days busting rivets and drilling bolts on a catwalk 100 feet above the ground. He drives in from American Canyon, just south of Napa, every morning to do the grueling work that pays the bills and puts food on the table for his 22-year-old fiancee and their two children.

Peck is good-natured and easygoing, and it's easy to see why he was so popular at his Napa high school, where he earned a 3.83 GPA and was voted class president his senior year. Peck has dreams of going to college -- ideally UC Santa Barbara -- but he decided to take a year off before diving back into his studies. The unexpected birth of his first daughter, however, forced him to take the first job that came his way -- a gig on the Bay Bridge seismic retrofit.

"I'm hoping not to get hooked on this work, but it's good money," he says. "My brother graduated from UCSB and I'm making more money than he is. But hopefully I'll get back to school."

In the meantime, Peck is stuck with monotonous tasks like rivet busting, which involves operating a 40-pound hand-held jackhammer and smashing the heads off the rivets that had been melted onto steel columns 60 years ago. The sound of the machine pounding against the rivet head is more than 80 decibels -- as deafening as the horn of a locomotive; from a distance it sounds like the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun. Everyone working on the bridge wears earplugs and protective glasses in addition to their hard hats. Sometimes, they also have to wear respirators, if the paint crew has only recently removed the lead and paint.

"The first couple times, I was placing the rivet buster on my hip bone, and then you push into it," Peck says, perched on a catwalk 100 feet above the ground on the bridge's west end. "The first couple days, I was bruised and sore, because it's a constant vibrating in your wrists, and you're holding it, so you're shaking. And there's all this dust coming up, and you learn to stay away from it, and you learn to do it so you minimize the vibrations. The more pressure you put on it, the less vibration. So you get yourself in a good position, you put pressure on it, and the less it hurts you."

But sometimes it's hard to get good leverage on a catwalk while trying to bust a rivet in a tight corner. The cramped work space is made even tighter by Peck's partner, who hovers above him with an oilcloth to catch the flying piece of hot metal before it ricochets off the steel and hits traffic or Peck's face inches away.

Peck works on Project 16, the section of the bridge that will be jacked up in late March. For the construction workers toiling 200 feet above the bay, the environment can be a bit more precarious. These workers spend their days in "containments," or work spaces hidden behind tarps and boarded up with plywood. The containments can be about 70 feet long and 30 feet high, and they were designed to protect the traffic from flying rivet heads and lead dust. Because the containments are enclosed, they are dim and lit with a string of lights like a dive bar in the late afternoon.

When sandblasting and rivet busting begin on the towers above the roadway, workers will have to climb 50 flights of stairs to get to the top and work at a 45-degree incline on the diagonal beams.

Even if bridge work does have a bit of cachet, the day-to-day is a grind, Peck says. "My first week, I wanted to quit, but I got kids at home," he says. "That kept me here. It's repetitious. Sometimes I'm in bed and I'm like, "Man, I got to get up for rivets.' But you gotta do what you gotta do. I know my work will save lives. I think about that, yeah."

The project done above the water is a huge, $150 million job, employing three subcontractors, five general foremen, 25 foremen, and nearly 200 workers. It's a job that not just anybody can run, which is why the construction company pulled 62-year-old Roy Turley out of semi-retirement to oversee the ironworking.

Tall with an athletic build, Turley has been in the business for 42 years. He has bad knees now, but he used to play minor league baseball and, in his younger days as an ironworker, ran across steel beams dangling hundreds of feet in the air. His thin, white hair is often hidden under a brown hard hat, and he has steely, piercing eyes that soften when he mentions his nine grandchildren.

Back when he was still booming, Turley earned a reputation for doing good work, and through word-of-mouth he got gigs running jobs in Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, and nearly two dozen other countries. He spent years away from home lifting and setting 1,550-ton refinery vessels or 640-ton salt units, and though he saw things he could never have seen in America, he missed watching all but one of his six children grow up.

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