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One day in the next few weeks, not long after sunrise, something amazing will happen on the Bay Bridge. The San Francisco end of the bridge -- all 3 million pounds of it -- will begin rising into the air. As traffic continues to speed across its surface, the bridge will be hoisted up by eight hydraulic jacks one-half inch, and sunlight will peek through between the road deck and the supporting column beneath it for the first time in decades.
For several days, the roadway will remain suspended in midair while construction workers 100 feet above the ground insert an 8-foot-long bearing, a device used to absorb energy and make bridges safer during earthquakes.
It will have taken three years to prepare for that day because failure would be catastrophic, and thus completely unthinkable. "We've taken all the precautions," says Nick Panayotou, who will head the endeavor for Caltrans, the state agency that oversees California's roads and bridges. "We don't want to screw up. And I don't want to be run out of this town."
Four "friction pendulum bearings" will be installed between the road deck and the steel support columns.
View an enlarged diagram.
View an enlarged diagram.
Jacking up the bridge with a live load of traffic is a remarkable engineering feat, but it is only one aspect of Caltrans' grand Bay Bridge seismic retrofit, the most ambitious ever performed on a suspension bridge.
The project is so massive that it will take more than 200 construction workers, laboring nearly around the clock, five years to complete the job. Construction began in the summer of 1998, and by the time it is finished in 2003, workers will have removed nearly half a million rivets and replaced them with 1.1 million high-strength bolts. About 19 million pounds of steel will have been added to the bridge, along with 96 shock absorbers the size of redwood trees, and four giant bearings, which will allow the bridge to skate a few feet back and forth in an earthquake. All told, the retrofit will cost about $200 million -- nearly three times as much as it did to build the bridge in the 1930s.
Yet despite its enormous scale, the retrofitting goes virtually unnoticed by the public. Most of the attention has focused on constructing the new and flashy east span, scheduled to be rebuilt by 2006.
Caltrans says it is proud of its invisibility in the west span retrofit -- if people don't know it's happening, then it isn't disrupting traffic, the agency says. And it is traffic on the busy bridge -- even more than the size or complexity of the project -- that has posed the greatest challenge. Caltrans, for example, is restricted to closing the bridge at night 30 times in the next couple of years, when it will be lifting 25-foot steel plates onto the bridge towers. For everything else, engineers must design the work around a constant stream of traffic, and they can only close a certain number of lanes during specific hours.
"It's difficult to do this work without causing an impact on the 280,000 vehicles crossing the bridge," says Peter Siegenthaler, the supervising bridge engineer. "Yes, we take up lanes, but we're working off-peak hours. And it's not the safest working environment. The challenge of this work is underappreciated."
Caltrans Structural Representative Thom Fresquez likes to put it another way: "It's like trying to rebuild your engine while driving on the freeway," he says.
On Oct. 17, 1989, the infamous Loma Prieta earthquake tore through the Bay Area in a 15-second fury, shaking the land for a hundred miles around, killing about 60 people, and causing about $7 billion in damage. The force of the 7.1-magnitude quake ripped open a 250-ton section of the Bay Bridge's eastern deck, which collapsed on the lower roadway, killing one person.
It was the worst damage the bridge had seen in 50 years -- though, all things considered, the span held up remarkably well, given that engineers designing the bridge in the late 1920s had assumed that wind forces -- not earthquakes -- would pose the greatest threat.
The Bay Bridge was in fact a magnificent engineering feat for its time. Bridge towers had to be sunk into bedrock at depths never reached before, and the span itself required 6 percent of the nation's total steel output in 1933, plus 1.3 million barrels of cement, and 18,500 tons of cable wire, enough to circle the earth 2.6 times.
The $77 million bridge opened on Nov. 7, 1936. Over the years, it has become the nation's most traveled bridge, and carries twice the number of cars as the Golden Gate. The 1989 failure of such a vital structure urged then-Gov. George Deukmejian to immediately call for retrofits of all nine toll bridges in the state, a mandate that is still being accomplished today.
Though it is impossible to bring a 60-year-old bridge up to modern design standards, the retrofit will make the bridge strong enough to withstand an earthquake 10 times the size of Loma Prieta. Caltrans considers the Bay Bridge a crucial "lifeline," and it needs to survive the next big shaker so emergency vehicles can cross the bay immediately afterward.
In anticipation of the Big One, the retrofit of the Bay Bridge has two goals: to make the bridge stronger and to allow it more freedom of motion in an earthquake.
The towers will be strengthened with concrete and metal, and the road decks bolstered with more steel. At the same time, giant shock absorbers and bearings will allow the bridge to diffuse the quake's destructive forces.
Each "friction pendulum bearing" used on the bridge is essentially an upside-down iron mushroom resting in a shallow dish topped by a "slider plate." The plate contains a groove that fits over the stem of the mushroom so the bridge can slide about three feet east and west (in the direction of traffic) on the support columns. A bearing will be placed between the roadway and each of four steel columns holding up the bridge at the San Francisco end near the Embarcadero.
Ninety-six 20-foot shock absorbers, called "dampers" -- some of the world's largest -- will also be added where the roadway meets the towers in the middle of the bay to prevent the road deck from slamming into the towers during an earthquake.
Perhaps the most noticeable change will be the removal of the archaic and unstable steel crosshatching or "lacing" that can be seen all over the bridge, particularly on the diagonal steel beams connecting the upper and lower decks. Ironworkers will remove the rivets that hold the steel strips and replace them with "perforated plates," or steel sheets with ovals punched into them.
The retrofit has been divided into three projects. The first, Project 15, began in April 1998 with the strengthening of the foundations in the water. It took a little less than two years to complete.
The second and third projects began in 1999 and are going on simultaneously. Project 16 focuses primarily on adding concrete and steel to the anchors and support columns near the Embarcadero. Project 16, which should be completed by 2002, is also responsible for jacking up the bridge and installing the four bearings in the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, Project 18 involves all the work on the bridge itself: removing rivets and lacing and installing the perforated plates; strengthening the road decks with more steel; and adding the dampers. It should be completed by 2003.
For all its complexity, the retrofitting is a fairly standard construction job, Caltrans officials say. It is the traffic that makes it hard, and because of it, the five-year retrofit will take about two years longer than it took to build the bridge 60 years ago.
In a labyrinth of high-walled cubicles in his Sacramento office, Mark Reno, a Caltrans senior engineer, designs and retrofits bridges, a can of Diet Dr Pepper near at hand. Six years ago, the immense task of masterminding the Bay Bridge retrofit fell to Reno, a 13-year Caltrans veteran who is considered a "design guru" by his colleagues. For two years, he worked feverishly on the retrofit, logging 60-hour weeks with his staff.
Retrofitting can be more difficult than building a new bridge, Reno says, because it requires molding a pre-existing steel bridge into something it was not necessarily designed to be.
"It's frustrating sometimes," he explains. "Say you decide to put a beam here, and then you go down there [to the bridge] and you see there's no way it will fit, or there's utilities hanging off the thing. These are the things we're running up against."
Reno began by inspecting every spot on the bridge to understand its layout. Yet even before he could begin designing, he ran into a critical problem. Reno needed the original shop drawings of each individual piece of steel to develop the retrofit plans, but when he turned to the old microfiche on which the drawings had been stored, he found them so blurry that they were completely unreadable. His only alternative was to use the original shop plans themselves -- except no one knew where they were.
After asking around the office and making a few phone calls, Reno found someone from the Oakland of- fice who mentioned that Caltrans kept documents in an old storage space in a section of the bridge that Reno declines to reveal. A fire several years ago had damaged some of the boxes there, and no one knew what condition the Bay Bridge drawings might be in -- if they were there at all.
A few days later, Reno was in a car heading toward San Francisco with another engineer, with a handwritten map of the storage space.
"Inside we found this huge box [of Bay Bridge plans], and we didn't have a screwdriver so we couldn't open it," Reno says. "We had a state car, so we loaded this box into the trunk and had to drive back to Sacramento with the trunk open. [The plans were in] ink on linen sheets, stored in a plywood box with brass screws. It probably hadn't been opened since someone put it there [in the '30s]. It was like Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Reno's detective work led him to other obscure outposts and more hidden documents. "A lot we stumbled upon, when we were looking for [the plans]," he says. "In the basement of the toll plaza, we were leafing through boxes and we found the actual typed diary the resident engineer kept every day of the wind and things that happened that day. It was fascinating. We found diaries of construction. Some of the documents said things like wages were $1 a day, or there were restrictions on ethnicity, like no Chinese workers.
"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."
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.
As the big boss -- the general foreman of ironworkers -- Turley is known for being straightforward and fair. He speaks with the authority of someone who has seen a rapist hung in Algeria, a boy whipped with bamboo sticks in Singapore, and who has heard firsthand accounts of the conditions of jails in Libya.
With more than six decades of life experience, Turley overflows with stories and constantly dispenses advice to his young ironworkers on subjects like saving money, investment, and interpersonal relationships.
"Some guys come in here crying about their money problems or their wife problems," he says, shaking his head. "They come in here in the morning all huffy-puffy about a fight they had with their wife. I say, "Wait, did you listen to her? Did you let her finish talking? You need to be man enough to listen to her, and she needs to be woman enough to listen to you.'
"One guy, his wife was pregnant and he was nervous as a cat every day. I said, "Listen, son, you're 200 pounds now, and at the end of it you'll be 150 pounds, but it'll be fine.' I told him that he needs to show a lot of interest in that baby, and she needs your support. When he had that baby, he could hardly talk on the phone, he was stuttering so bad. I told him to get a good night's rest and that I'd see him the following day. He was a young guy, and it was his first child. That's a big thing around here, for guys to have babies. Six guys have had kids since this job started.
"To run these jobs, you almost got to be a psychologist," Turley concludes. "I never thought I'd say that."
Turley's right-hand man is Cal Kinney, a stocky 50-year-old with sleepy eyes and an upturned nose. Kinney likes to speak his mind, and he'll repeat himself over and over to drive the point home. His grainy voice has an East Coast edge, and it is made more resonant by the Winston cigarettes he smokes, a pack of which he keeps under his hard hat during the day.
Kinney is the kind of guy who believes in tough love ("I yell and scream all day long. It bites their pride, but it's good training"); doing a hard day's work ("When you break a sweat, you feel good"); a stiff drink ("I drink vodka because you could be in the bar all day and only smell like you had one"); and assigned gender roles ("Ironworking has always been man's work").
His opinions and worldview have been solidified by 28 years of ironworking, and Kinney has been around long enough to remember the glory days.
"We never tied off when we first started. We climbed the iron freely, that was part of being an ironworker," he says. "We were king of the hill, like cats on the iron. Now there's nets and safety cables. Safety, safety, safety. You're tied six ways to Sunday and you can hardly move on the iron anymore. We used to walk across I-beams and climb columns. They gotcha so moused up with so much safety equipment now.
"And back then the foremen would yell and scream at ya, but you never forgot what you learned. Now you got to be politically correct, and you can't call them names or you might offend somebody. When you first started out, you were a "punk.' Now, you can only call them "apprentices.'"
But some things remain the same. Kinney says he can still go to any ironworkers' hall in any state and have a "hand reach out with a hot cup of coffee."
And ironworkers still have a lot of pride, he says. "These guys'll get in fights about who's better than who, who's quicker than who, who's telling who what to do. They'll throw down in a parking lot and they buy each other beers afterward. Sure the boys will be rowdy, but boys will be boys. That's the way they are. That's the natural order of things. And if you don't know it, you'll learn it."
He tells tales of ironworkers like a veteran telling war stories: "The wildest it ever got is once we had to hang iron with a helicopter. It was fast-paced, to the wall, right to the edge. You got one foot in the web, one leg around a column, and 10 tons flying at you, and that's a lot of iron. A lot of guys lost fingers. You sat there with your bolts, waiting for it, and here it comes, and it's coming at you banging up and down, then you slam in a sleever bar, and throw a bolt and nut on it, get it in, and you're sliding down the column to get away from the metal before the copter pilot cuts the rigger loose. And maybe that bird woulda crashed, but you were lucky that day, so you go out and have a few beers and bragged it up."
But all the safety precautions have put an end to Kinney's fun, though he realizes that times have changed and he's getting too old for the business anyway. The construction company that hired Kinney and Turley has a "safety director" who makes nearly daily appearances on the site to talk to the workers about tying their harnesses to stable beams, or lead testing.
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.
"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."