The Bay Bridge retrofit
"This is history. My kids will know that their dad helped build it. We’ve worked on many bridges, but this is the mother of all of them. For our age, this is where you want to be." -Martin Espinoza, Local 34
"If you don’t learn something every day on this job, you aren’t paying attention." -Terry L. Cronk, Local 34
"On this job, the union starts with us. We take care of our own business. When we need the union, it’s there. The union presence is in the quality of work on this bridge." -Leo Vega, Local 34
It’s the largest and most challenging public works project in California history. Kicked off in 2002, the new San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge has employed hundreds of union pile drivers and carpenters, and will employ hundreds more before completion in 2013.
The new span will feature the world’s longest self-anchored suspension (SAS) bridge, connected to an elegant one-mile skyway, which will gradually slope down toward the Oakland shoreline.
It’s built on 160 hollow steel-pipe piles, eight feet in diameter, weighing 365 tons. Using one of the world’s largest hydraulic hammers, generating 1.2 million pounds of force, Local 34 members battered these piles more than 300 feet into the mud at an angle, for maximum strength.
Kiewit-FCI-Manson (KFM) is the contractor for the skyway. American Bridge/Fluor Enterprises, CC Myers and KFM are contractors for the SAS bridge; and MCM is the primary contractor for the Oakland touchdown.
"This is such an immense, complex project, it’s hard to get your arms around the whole thing," says pile driving foreman Gordy Crocker, "so any one person’s experiences are just a small part of the project."
We asked a small group of Local 34 members to share some thoughts on the project. Here are some of their stories.
I’ve really learned to respect the engineers we worked with. They had a plan for everything. It wasn’t always perfect, and sometimes we had to adjust it on the fly, but there was at least a very detailed plan, for every operation, for every day. There wasn’t a lot shooting from the hip. -Gordy Crocker
Building a piano
We had to build blockouts down to 3 mm tolerance. They were very intricate. We had Tony Creighton on this job—he’s a very fine woodworker. We ended up getting some very nice tools, and they built a whole woodworking shop. By the end, they were doing some very nice quality work, almost like building a piano. Tony had to figure out most of those angles, it wasn’t really in the plan. Most of the time, if you could make the case, the contractors would make sure you had the equipment you needed to do the job right. -Terry L. Cronk
Like lifting a slinky
It was someone’s idea to put together the rebar cages in one unit on the beach and then stand them up, instead of standing them up one piece at a time, like we usually do. They weighed 320 tons each, and the only thing holding them together was wire. It was like picking up a slinky. We had a spreader bar to pick the whole thing up, and then drop it into the socket in the pile. There were 32 of them. The spreader bar—we called it a chandelier—had 24 different slings. Then the pile butts would run up there and hook up the slings to the column, and then we’d drop it into the socket. The first time, it was a 12-hour deal. We got it down to four hours. -Gordy Crocker
The biggest lift
We had to pick up that 250-foot Bigge beam, the “tub” for underneath the roadbed, and hand it over to the control of the iron workers on top. So we had to rig those tag lines to keep this 800-ton load from spinning around and tearing up the boom—or anything else. We did it twice, without tearing anything up. The first time was for practice, to make sure we could do it. It was pretty stressful, to make us do it, not just once for every beam, but twice. It was Caltrans’ biggest lift. -Gordy Crocker
There was a lot of concern about the wildlife. For example, when you hit steel in water, the sound waves kill the fish-and the big deal was not to kill the fish. So we had these "bubblators," which created a stream of bubbles around the piles that would deaden the noise-like a curtain we had to build around each pile. It’s not like it worked all that well either.
And then there was this seagull who nested on one of the stretcher bars. We had to protect her. I did not want to have to explain why she died. She had her side of the bar and I had mine-we had to build a house around that nest until the eggs hatched. They were going to hold this job up for her. -Richard T. Heibert
Going down to Schnitzer Steel
At some point, the governor decided that he was going to veto this bridge. So we took the whole pre-driven pile out to Schnitzer Steel to turn it into scrap. And by Monday, they changed their mind, and we had to go out to Schnitzer and put it on a barge and bring it back. Really, someone should write a book about this job. -Gordy Crocker
We’d drive the first section of the pile half way down, and then we would fresh-head the top and weld the next piece. They were so big, we couldn’t do it all in one piece. You would go lightly into the bedrock to not fracture the rock and then drill a rock socket, drop a cage into that, and then go down further through the bottom of the pile, to whatever depth they wanted. -Richard Foster
About the photographer:
If you’ve worked more than a day or two on the Bay Bridge project, you’ve seen Joe Blum. Since the start of soil sampling, Blum spends most days -and often nights, too- in sometimes precarious perches photographing the men and women who are putting the bridge together.
After 25 years as a boilermaker, shipfitter and welder, Blum found his calling in photography, creating a visual record of the work of the building trades-shooting both the new East Span and the Zampa Memorial Bridge across the Carquinez Strait.
"Joe puts all his years of working in the trades into his work," says Local 34 Senior Field Representative Pat Karinen. "He understands what we do. You see his respect for the work in every picture."
Thanks to the Brothers at Local 34 who took time to help out with this story:
Domenico DiDonato, Richard Foster, Steve Tilton, Robert Lee Harris, Gordy Crocker, Martin Espinoza, Terry L. Cronk, Leo Vega, Richard T. Heibert, and Rudy Hemminger; as well as Joe Blum and Pat Karinen for their help in putting together this article.
All photographs are © Joe Blum, All Rights Reserved