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.

Yet even with the slew of safety procedures, people still get hurt. The most serious incident occurred in late February when a painter who was not using his harness fell about 80 feet, hitting metal scaffolding along the way, and landed on a lower platform. He was in critical condition when he was taken to the hospital, and is now in stable condition.

Caltrans insists that the most dangerous element of the retrofit work is the traffic. The far left lane, and a few more at night, are blocked off during off-peak hours with only orange traffic cones, allowing traffic to whiz past the containments. In late February, a day after the painter nearly fell to his death, a Toyota 4Runner lost control and careened into the lane closure, colliding with the side of a van in which several ironworkers were eating lunch.

"I heard a pow!" says Trull, the four-fingered Oregonian, who was sitting in the van. "So I swing over and looked, and there's a Toyota 4Runner, brand-new, and I see the bottom of the car coming at the van sideways, and it picked us up and threw us against the curb. We were wiping glass off our faces. It was a jolt. Five seconds before, I was holding the door, getting in.

Roy Turley, general foreman for ironworking, was pulled out of semi-retirement to run the bridge retrofitting.
Anthony Pidgeon
Roy Turley, general foreman for ironworking, was pulled out of semi-retirement to run the bridge retrofitting.
Ironworkers Luis Cobian (left), Brian Peck (right), and Peck's partner (center) take a break from rivet busting.
Anthony Pidgeon
Ironworkers Luis Cobian (left), Brian Peck (right), and Peck's partner (center) take a break from rivet busting.
Worker "containments" on the side of the bridge, enclosed by tarp and plywood, protect traffic from construction.
Anthony Pidgeon
Worker "containments" on the side of the bridge, enclosed by tarp and plywood, protect traffic from construction.
Ironworker Denis Owens at work on Project 16.
Anthony Pidgeon
Ironworker Denis Owens at work on Project 16.

Four "friction pendulum bearings" will be installed between the road deck and the steel support columns.


View an enlarged diagram.

Four "friction pendulum bearings" will be installed between the road deck and the steel support columns.

View an enlarged diagram.


View an enlarged diagram.

View an enlarged diagram.

Foreman Luis Cobian near hydraulic jacks that will lift 3 million pounds of the bridge.
Anthony Pidgeon
Foreman Luis Cobian near hydraulic jacks that will lift 3 million pounds of the bridge.
Cobian points out the portion of the steel column that will be cut to install the bearing.
Anthony Pidgeon
Cobian points out the portion of the steel column that will be cut to install the bearing.

"It's completely safe on that job. Ironworkers will hang off anything, the higher the better. I'd do it blindfolded. But stepping out in traffic bothers me."

A few hours after the 4Runner clipped the van, Kinney sat in a portable office and unloaded his concerns on a Caltrans representative. "All these guys are working for is a way of life," Kinney says with feeling. "They're making a pittance for what they're up against. Our job is unsafe to begin with. If it's not going to be safe, I might as well tell the guys to put their harnesses in a pile and set 'em on fire if you can't even get out of the van in the morning. We have a better chance of surviving on the side of the bridge without the harnesses."

"This is a statewide problem," the Caltrans rep responds. "How do you get people to slow down and give a damn about the people working out there? We've been trying to address this problem for years."

"Maybe if you whip some ass in the middle of traffic as an example, then we'll see what happens," Kinney suggests, half seriously.

Later that afternoon, when everybody else has left, Turley leans in and lowers his voice to suggest that matters could have been worse. "There is no room for error in this business," he says, unblinking. "No margin for error. Our guys were mad as hell. [That driver] was lucky they took him away in an ambulance before our guys got to him."

On the day in late March when the bridge will be jacked from its support columns, it will be a big moment in the world of San Francisco bridge construction. The heads of the construction company for Project 16 and nearly a dozen Caltrans engineers will be on site to supervise the endeavor.

The crew will start about 7 a.m. The jacks will pull the bridge decks up by four metal pins that bear the weight of the bridge decks and connect the roadways to the steel columns. Exactly 100,000 pounds will be lifted at a time, and a Caltrans engineer with a laptop will sit next to the jacks running a "strain gauge" to make sure the bridge is never close to the point of failure.

When the 3-million-pound road deck has been lifted, and there's daylight between the bridge and the columns, everyone -- especially Nick Panayotou, who is overseeing the jacking for Caltrans -- will let out a quick sigh of relief. And then they will celebrate.

"It'll be tense. We've been gearing up for this for three years, and it will be a relief when it goes well," says Panayotou. "But when it's done, it's like a Miller Time commercial. The guys get the job done and they get toasted. I've seen 'em have a couple beers at the trailer afterward."

The jacking process should take the whole day, and when foreman Luis Cobian and his crew arrive in the days that follow, they will have to cut 15 inches off the steel column that holds up the road deck by torching the metal out piece by piece. Then they will rig the bearing in place.

And when the whole thing is finished, they'll repeat the jacking, the torching, and the rigging three more times over the next few months, for each of the remaining support columns. "We're getting everything ready for that big day," says the soft-spoken Cobian. "The day after that, it will be like there is nothing to do. It will be a relief.

"I don't think about [anything going wrong.] It's just got to be perfect. Here, we have to be perfect."

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