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.

Details

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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