The Bridge Builders
SPECIAL REPORT: THE BRIDGE BUILDERS
By Tony Bartelme And Jessica Vanegeren
Sunday, March 20, 2005
They flew in from France and Sweden and Canada with blueprints and PowerPoints and a fondness for espresso.
They drove in from Moncks Corner and Santee and Goose Creek with new work gloves and steel-toed boots.
They came for the money, mainly, and the challenge, and when they weren't on the job, who knows? Maybe drink a few beers, chase a few women, break a few vows.
They came to dance with steel and concrete, to work in a place where men grab girders the size of tanker trucks and beat on thick metal pins with sledgehammers.
While here, they would feel death's presence. Some would cheat it, watching it fall toward them, like a nightmare monster, and be stopped at the last second by a net or an angel. Sometimes the monster came from the bridge deck or the cables, exploding like a jack in the box, grabbing anyone in reach.
To their surprise, in just three and a half years, they built a living, breathing thing. Like a sunflower, the bridge moved 12 inches or more as the sun rose and warmed the young concrete. Then, as the sun set over the steeples of downtown Charleston, the towers moved back. Sometimes, the workers, not God, moved the bridge. They used hydraulic jacks to bend the towers, and they tuned the long white cables like guitar strings to make the deck rise and fall.
They were proud of what they were making, but in ways only their families or bartenders would know. A job like this is never a clean or polite affair. The workers built this bridge with sweat, coffee, pranks and more than a little yelling. They worked in rain so heavy they couldn't see past the tips of their hard hats, worked so long and hard they passed out in their chairs at home and woke the next morning in yesterday's clothes.
These moments would blind many of the workers to their achievement: Even before they connected the spans, their midair stage had become known throughout the world. People wanting to build bridges in other countries traveled here to see how these workers had done it: How they had a bridge a year ahead of schedule without losing money.
Success had its costs, though, and this job would consume as it created. A big construction job does that; companies bet fortunes and futures on projects like this, and the pressure falls from manager to worker like a mudslide, taking careers, marriages and lives in its path. Because of this pressure, a big bridge job becomes a race — against time, weather and the limits of human endurance.
And, now, on the windy morning of March 11, the race was all but over, and Dave Vannah was wondering where the hell his wife was. She gets lost all the time, he thought. He didn't want her to miss the big show.
Dave was a superintendent, a barrel-chested man with a curly mop of hair and a wide, windblown face. Today, his crew would drive in the Golden Spike, or rather, drop a 10-ton concrete slab into a gap on the road deck.
Once the gap was closed, the deck would be complete; the bridge would truly be a bridge. It would be a moment of great symbolism, and a convoy was on the way to witness it. The mayors of Charleston and Mount Pleasant were coming. So were the lawmakers and TV people in their suits and high heels.
And, as far as the workers were concerned, it was all for show. Hours earlier, when no one was watching, a crew lowered the last slab to make sure it fit, and then lifted it back out. They didn't want any surprises in front of the cameras and bosses. They wanted to make it look easy, building this bridge, which it most certainly was not.
Many workers weren't sure whether to be amused or annoyed by the pomp. Tom Mitcham, a lanky foreman from Texas, milled about as the wind picked up. "If it starts raining, then they'd get a taste of what it's really like here."
Some were sad. For April Carder, this job had changed her life, and now the work was ending. Others, such as Joseph Davis, were grateful to be part of history. Jose Lopes, a Frenchman, wasn't sure what was going on and busied himself on one of the cables.
As noon approached, Dave called his wife again. "Hurry up babe. I love you."
Then the convoy arrived, and the crowds gathered around the gap, and Wade Watson, the project manager, ordered Peo Halvarsson, the tall Swede, to lower the slab. Peo looked at Dave, who yelled, "Roll!"
The workers climbed around the slab.
"Carlos, you have five minutes to do this!" Dave yelled.
The crane rumbled.
"OK, guys, it's your time to shine."