Published in the Sun-Herald on January 8, 2012.
On a windy day, One World Trade Centre sways from side to side, as all unfinished skyscrapers do. Standing on the corrugated steel deck that will be the 88th floor, the lateral movement is disconcerting, the feeling more like seasickness than vertigo, until you look down. The view can stop and unsteady you, this high above Manhattan.
The only two men permitted to work without safety harnesses are Michael O’Reilly and Tommy Hickey, both from Irish-American families that built New York in the glory days of steel. As connecters, they handle the most dangerous job on the raising gang, guiding beams into place and putting in the first bolt. They don’t often pause to talk, but today they’re “winded out” – prevented from working by the weather conditions.
“It’s going up about a floor a week now,” Michael says. “Faster, because we’re working on it,” replies Tommy, who looks like he could beat the bolts in with his bare hands. “You ever hear about the gladiators? That’s our nickname, up here.”
Their signal man is Peter Jacobs, a fifth generation ironworker from Akwesasne, a Mohawk homeland that straddles the Canadian border. After thirty years as a connecter, he is nearing retirement. “They asked me to give signals for this crane, so I did it as a favour,” he says, “but if I got to put my belt on tomorrow to go back in the air, I don’t think twice about it.”
Ask them how they came to walk the high steel and they will tell you it was inevitable. “When I was a young kid, nine years old, I knew I was going to be an ironworker,” says Jacobs. Hickey was thrown out of home by his father, straight into the union. O’Reilly’s dad was a connecter, too. “I’m just following in his footsteps, that’s all,” is his first answer.
His father, Thomas, worked on the original Seven World Trade Centre building, across the street from the North Tower, joined by an elevated walkway. On October 7, 1985, he was perched on a narrow strip of steel known as a knife connection, two floors above the deck, waiting for a beam to bolt in. There was a delay securing the load, so after shifting his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other for a while, he decided to slide down the column, then climb back up when it was ready.
“He goes to swing around the column and just lost it,” O’Reilly says. “He didn’t stay in tight, next thing he’s falling backwards onto steel that was shook out. He broke his spine in two places, fractured his skull and was paralysed from the waist down.” This happened four days before Mike’s eleventh birthday, putting paid to his childhood dreams of becoming an ironworker. When he asked if he could join the union, in his early twenties, his father was adamant that any other career would be better than risking his life building skyscrapers.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers, killing more than 2,800 people. Seven World Trade Centre was the last of the structures to fall, severely damaged by the North Tower’s collapse. “Until then, my feeling was that, although Dad was in a wheelchair, the building was there and it meant something that he had put it up,” O’Reilly says. “Once it came down I thought ‘what was it all for?’” This time, he would not take no for an answer. After completing his apprenticeship, the first project he worked on was the new Seven World Trade Centre.
“That was to honour him, you know what I mean. He was so proud of me when it was done and it was a last hurrah, because not too much after that he wound up passing away. This One World Trade Centre job is to honour the victims. That’s how I feel about it. I’m doing it for the world, almost.”
Nobody was more deeply involved in the clean-up at Ground Zero than New York’s ironworkers. In the search for survivors, when it briefly seemed like everyone wanted to help, they knew how to cut steel and lift it clear without well-meaning bystanders getting hurt. Some stayed through the grim hunt for body parts, buried in toxic debris. Foreman Eddie Scannell spent two weeks on the pile, removing the heaviest rubble. “It’s great to be here to put it back up,” he says. “It symbolises that you can’t keep Americans down.”
This moment has been a long time coming. The crater that the Twin Towers made when they fell, seven stories deep and a quarter of a mile wide, remained an open wound for five years. The delays could be ascribed to the complexity of the work going on below ground, but they were also case of metropolitan dysfunction, held up by negotiations between developer Larry Silverstein, who owns the lease, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land.
A resonant name, the Freedom Tower, was quietly dropped. The New York Police Department insisted on a vast concrete base, capable of withstanding a truck bomb. As the design went through endless changes, it seemed doubtful that One World Trade Centre could meet the daunting expectation that it be a memorial, a bunker, a symbol of American resilience and 240,000 square metres of prime Manhattan real estate, all at once.
Brokers still question whether the Port Authority can charge enough rent to turn a profit, despite the unveiling of Conde Nast publishers as a blue chip anchor tenant, but there is no denying that the tower will be an icon. The steel skeleton, half dressed in glass, already dominates the downtown skyline. In the United States, where imperial measures are still in use, it will top out at 1,776 feet: a reference to the year of American independence.
Although Dubai now boasts the world’s tallest building and Hong Kong has the most towers, skyscrapers are an American invention, pioneered in Chicago and perfected in New York, during the first third of the 20th Century, when the Met Life building, the Woolworth, the Chrysler and the Empire State building reached unprecedented heights. “Ironworkers lived and died on an operatic scale,” writes Jim Rasenberger, in his superb history of the industry, High Steel. “They were dashing and tragic figures who walked on air like supermen and dropped from the sky like stricken birds. They were daring and restless and possibly insane.”
An ironworker stood a 2% chance of being killed and another 2% chance of being permanently disabled each year, meaning that in a group of ten, four were likely to be dead or maimed within a decade. “A man, on the day he starts in the structural iron industry, signs his death warrant,” wrote union leader Robert Neidig. “One of our members that lives to be old and dies in his bed is looked upon as a curiosity by the vast majority whose crushed and mangled remains are laid beneath the sod before the hand of Time has had a chance to touch one hair with silver.”
In the 1930s, Lewis Hine photographed men working, walking, eating and taking a nap in the rafters of the Empire State building, as nonchalant as if they were in the back garden. Although shots like these are harder to come by in our risk averse, health and safety age – a man enjoying a picnic on a perimeter beam would be fired by the insurance company before he unwrapped his sandwiches – the essentials of the job are unchanged.
Every ironworker has stories to tell, about men crippled on the steel. O’Reilly saw a man’s leg severed at the thigh by a stray beam. Jacobs had to care for his dad, after he broke his back falling seven floors down a shaft. Bobby Walsh, who runs the Manhattan branch of the union, is a third generation ironworker whose grandfather emigrated from County Cork. His father, Edmund, was killed by a buckled crane when Bobby was eleven years old. Three of Edmund’s four sons joined the union and their own sons followed in turn. Bobby’s eldest, John, was hurt by a piece of falling timber and is deaf in one ear as a result, but both his sons went into the trade regardless.
Ironworkers earn a good living, when there’s work, which is one reason why the profession has been passed down among communities with roots in Ireland, Germany, Norway and the Mohawk nation. In New York, many come from a small area of Newfoundland, around Conception Bay. Known to their colleagues as Fish, legend has it that they return home between construction projects to breed. One ironworker, Tim Costello, had seven sons, all of whom went into the profession, then married and began producing little connecters and crane operators of their own.
Structural ironworkers operate in gangs: the raising gang assembles the structure, the bolting-up gang secures it, the plumb-up gang makes sure it’s perfectly level and the welding gang completes the join. In the golden age of construction, developers would pitch one ethnic group against another, to boost productivity. “Years ago, they used to set the Fish against the Indians,” says Jacobs. “Well, you know who won that one – it sure wasn’t the Fish. The Irish, the Italians, they always try to outdo the Mohawk gangs but it doesn’t happen. There ain’t nobody gonna beat us.”
Mohawks have been ironworkers since the mid-1880s, when they were recruited to work on a bridge over the St Lawrence river near their reservation. National Geographic magazine later speculated, without a shred of evidence, that the Iroquois take to the work because they are “almost completely lacking in fear of heights.”In the 1960s, there was a large Native American community in Brooklyn, with its own pub, the Wigwam, and a church that offered services in the Mohawk dialect, but when a new freeway North cut the journey home from twelve hours to six, most moved back to the reservation. Jacobs returns every Friday, arriving close to midnight, only to leave again before dawn on Monday morning. His grandfather worked on the raising gang, as did his father, his step-father, his uncles and both his brothers, but he has encouraged his son to go to university, to study audio engineering. “I’m grateful he’s not an ironworker,” he says. “It’s been a real good life for me, but it’s not good to leave your family, to travel so far just to put bread and butter on the table.”
The union still offers apprenticeships to its first born sons, but there is also a formal application process, open to anyone, that makes for a more diverse workforce. The job itself is changing, too, slowed down and standardised by regulations, the pace set by the insurers, rather than the foreman. “When I broke into this business, men were men, that old school feeling was still there,” Jacobs says. “They don’t have that gusto any more, they want the money without the hard work.”
Connecters, in particular, resent being asked to wear safety harnesses and attach their tools with lanyards, complaining that the new rules make them less nimble, less able to avoid a “pinch point,” when huge chunks of metal collide unexpectedly. Although One World Trade Centre is unusual in having a cocoon of netting around the top few floors, to prevent workmen falling to earth, the trend is towards greater oversight and less autonomy at construction sites. Only two ironworkers, Brett McEnroe and Roy Powell, were killed in New York this year, when they fell down a lift shaft together.
On May 28, 2002, the last remaining column from the Twin Towers was attached to a crane, garlanded with flowers, draped in an American flag and pulled from its foundations. Ironworkers who had stayed longest or lost friends in the rubble signed the steel before it was taken away. There have been many false starts since then – a symbolic cornerstone laid with much fanfare on July 4, 2004 was removed two years later – but the next ceremony at the site will mark the formal completion of One World Trade Centre.
The tower will not be ready for occupancy until April 2013. Its massive, largely ornamental antenna, just big enough to make it the tallest building in America, won’t be finished until later next year. But Topping Out, when the last beam is lifted from the ground and bolted into place, will be the raising gang’s proudest moment. Barring delays, it is due to happen in March. Jacobs, O’Reilly and Hickey will be there to set the steel.
“It’ll be a sense of pride, knowing that I made this building, something I can show my grandkids, when I have them,” Jacobs says. Hickey is satisfied to have drawn a new silhouette in the Manhattan skyline, alongside the buildings his ancestors put up. “Hopefully my grandfather and my great-uncles are looking down on me and thinking ‘he’s doing a good job,’” he says.