Sandhogs Tunneling Under Second Avenue

Veteran sandhogs are finishing tunnels for the future subway, right beneath your feet

Sandhogs Tunneling Under Second Avenue
Brad DeCecco

Devin Bates got lucky.

It was 2009, and he was on the Croton Filtration Plant job in the Bronx. The then-53-year-old, five-year sandhog was helping guide the back rigging of the tunnel-boring machine when it suddenly swung and sent him falling backward into a 20-foot pit. Had the pit not been filled with water, Bates might have snap-ped his neck. Instead, he broke his wrist.

It turned out to be Tom Buzzell's lucky day, too. His wife, Roni, was the nurse who, more than a year later, admitted Bates at Mahwah Surgery Center in Mahwah, New Jersey. "I don't know how we got to talking about the sandhogs," Roni says. "I had no idea what a sandhog was. All of us nurses were fascinated. We all crowded around him asking questions."

Because of the time it takes for concrete to set and to move the multi-ton arch form, progress on the tunnels is limited to 120 feet per day.
Brad DeCecco
Because of the time it takes for concrete to set and to move the multi-ton arch form, progress on the tunnels is limited to 120 feet per day.
Tom Buzzell had trouble adjusting to civilian life after two harrowing tours in Iraq. Then he found the sandhogs.
Brad DeCecco
Tom Buzzell had trouble adjusting to civilian life after two harrowing tours in Iraq. Then he found the sandhogs.

One of the questions Roni asked was how one becomes a sandhog. Tom, 35, was desperate for a new job. For the past six months, he had been working at Avis car rental at LaGuardia Airport. He had been grateful to get the job. After his discharge from the Army in June 2009, he and Roni and their infant son lived in Orlando. Tom hoped to get some type of security work, maybe at Disney or one of the other theme parks. With his experience—two tours in Iraq culminating in the rank of staff sergeant—he thought it would be easy. In four months, he sent out more than a hundred résumés. He didn't get a single interview. So Tom started looking for work of any kind in the New York area. He and Roni are both from Pearl River, and most of their family still lives there. In fact, since Tom got the Avis job and they moved back, they had been living with Tom's parents in their two-family house. The close quarters, Tom's three-hour round-trip commute, and the 10-hour days for $500 a week were all starting to wear on the couple.

Roni told all of this to Bates. Really, though, all she needed to say was that Tom was a veteran. "The guy goes over there and fights for me," Bates says. "The least I can do is try and help him." Within the week, Tom had left Avis and was shaping on Second Avenue.

Although the first phase of the Second Avenue subway—an extension of Q service to 96th Street—won't open to commuters before 2016, last month marked a significant step in the construction: the completion of the tunnels between the eventual 96th Street and 72nd Street stations. (Three subsequent phases, proposed to extend the Q to 125th Street and add a new line—the T—spanning 125th Street to Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan, have yet to receive funding.) Where for 470 million years there had been rock, there are now two 20-foot diameter, butter-smooth concrete tubes—a giant, mile-long double-barrel shotgun buried 100 feet below the Upper East Side. The work, a collaboration of three contractors led by the Swedish-based Skanska, took nearly five years, and in that time, most of the local media coverage has focused on the disruption to and in some cases, displacement of area residents and businesses. That or the technological marvel that is the 500-ton, 800-foot-long, $25 million-to-lease, straight-out-of-science-fiction tunnel-boring machine. Meanwhile, scant attention has been paid to those who help operate the TBM, and who also, in three around-the-clock shifts of 30 or so men, have spent the past half-decade dynamiting and drilling and sledgehammering and wheelbarrowing and welding and mucking and generally risking life and limb: Laborers' Local Union No. 147, the sandhogs.

The history of the New York City sandhogs dates back to the 1870s and the sinking of the caissons for the Brooklyn Bridge. Local 147 was formed some 30 years later, in 1906, and has been integral to every subterranean public-works project since. Subways, car and water tunnels, sewers—you name it, they've dug it. Yet in all that time, the sandhogs have never experienced a bonanza of work such as that of the past few years. Along with the Second Avenue subway, there is the East Side Access project, which will connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal; the westward extension of the 7 train; City Water Tunnel No. 3 and the Croton Filtration Plant; the renovated South Ferry station; and the new Fulton Street Transit Center in Downtown Brooklyn. In the weeks just prior to 9/11, only 12 of Local 147's roughly 600 members had work. Today, the union is around 2,000 strong, with well more than half enjoying consistent employment throughout the recent boom.

Local 147's ranks aren't quite so multifarious as the city at large. There are few Hispanic or Asian sandhogs, and rare is the sight of a woman underground. (In fairness, the requisite ability to operate a 140-pound jackleg precludes plenty of men from the job as well.) Still, according to 55-year-old shop steward Pat Barr, a 32-year-veteran sandhog, "it's the most diverse union in the city, maybe the state."

The men range in age from late teens to late sixties. They come from Brooklyn and the Bronx, Staten Island and Hoboken, Dutchess and Rockland counties, Guyana and Ireland and the Grenadines; the tunnels resound with various accents. There are the "Narrowbacks," the sons of Irish immigrants, and the "Appleknockers," who live in far upstate towns such as Roscoe and Downsville. There are guys who have been married for more than 30 years and guys who have been divorced twice; guys with infant daughters whose pictures they keep tucked inside their hard hats and guys with sons working right alongside them, just as they worked alongside their fathers, just as their fathers did before them. There is a sandhog with a Ph.D., some with master's and undergraduate degrees, and others who never went to college.

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17 comments
wemsdb
wemsdb

Hello to Pat Barr my Marine Corps Brother. Bill Johnson Local 103 IBEW Boston, MA.

Amgems
Amgems

You've obviously never done any physical labor, or you'd understand these "guts" earn every penny they make.

Reykjavik
Reykjavik

$100/hr for miners anywhere else in the country who make less than half that? And that doesn't even count the Byzantine work rules and manning levels that permit many sandhogs to earn more than $200K/yr. And because they have a lock on that sort of labor (as do crane operators), there's no chance of price competition. You wonder why subway and train projects cost many billions and there's been only token system expansions over the past half century? Look no further. Taxpayers of course end up getting victimized. Yeah, it's a grimy, dangerous job that I wouldn't want, but that's no reason to pay these guts obscene amounts.

Sean Ghazala
Sean Ghazala

Great article - one correction

the fulton street transit center is being built in lower manhattan at the corner of Broadway and Fulton st - not downtown brooklyn' fulton st

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JamesM
JamesM

Gr8 article re the rebuilding of NYC & all of those 'non-outsource-able' jobs performed by the hardworking sandhog community led by leaders & Patriots such as Pat Barr......jmch.

Quit_geo
Quit_geo

That is very strong, but If we need more workers entered the list As I and worked in construction and have practiced in that. Job want more seven months

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BLUE PILL  RED PILL
BLUE PILL RED PILL

pandemics already let out,,,are these sources for real or fake ?benjamin fulford on sars...let out to target asians.....martial law....this is how they plan to kill us..george green...,bush if true talked about how dissedents will go to camps! oh and nuclear attacks on us,warned by illumanti in movies,sum of all fears film...man wears serpent on arm logo of higher mason serpent brotherhoods,5000 years old.... film KABOOM 2011 black project nuclear sites sit beside known military sites for nuclear launching.... russian nuclear things are in u.s ready...,russian submarines of coast of u.s ? or how about submarines manned with anyone off streets then go back to life's....after BOOM LAUNCH...,or people working for these gons leave bombs in cities....corrupted government.... submarine stuff is conjecture..but who knows...they could boom us any day....

BLUE PILL  RED PILL
BLUE PILL RED PILL

obama and george bush have done mason signs.....with hands used in lodges....obama ia an ethiopan jew too...past 52 presidents are all related........obama is 7th cousin to bush...,oh and nazi's from ww2 run intell,project paper clip...and an ex general of army headed cia as a satanist.....busy evil bee's ! they own all things on this planet,food companies,drink...banks,media ect.....law.....

BLUE PILL  RED PILL
BLUE PILL RED PILL

good sand hogs but we have evil one ruling us some of them..from day zero to today.....evil kings and evil leaders in there bloodlines.............,i read SAALM O1 scribd document too the annuki bloodline..albino with red eyes....im sure its not fake,check it out...........,also masonic jews....rule earth too....,george washington sits with neptune,mercury,saturn as satan is part of this family......its painted or was on congress ceiling......

 
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