Sandhogs Tunneling Under Second Avenue

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

There was also the work itself.

"It provided the structure I'd gotten used to in the Army," Buzzell says. "That and my superiors yelling at me."

Buzzell's father spent two years in the Air Force. This was in part what led Tom to enlist. Sandhogging, too, often runs in the family. Pat Barr's grandfather and father worked on the Lincoln Tunnel. His son, his son-in-law, and a nephew are working on the East Side Access; a second nephew was a gang foreman on Second Avenue. Another Second Avenue gang foreman was the son of the project's superintendent.

Thanks to technological advance-ments, such as time-delayed fuses, sandhogs are safer on the job 
than ever before. But injury and death remain constant threats.
Brad DeCecco
Thanks to technological advance-ments, such as time-delayed fuses, sandhogs are safer on the job than ever before. But injury and death remain constant threats.
The sandhogs range in age from late teens to late sixties and hail from as far away as Ireland and the Grenadines.
Brad DeCecco
The sandhogs range in age from late teens to late sixties and hail from as far away as Ireland and the Grenadines.

Details

That's another parallel between soldier and sandhog life, one that particularly appeals to Buzzell: the hierarchy. Just as in the military, the sandhogs follow a strict chain of command. At the bottom is the gang, typically composed of six men. Each gang is led by a foreman, who reports to a walking boss, who in turn reports to a superintendent. Unlike the military, though, sandhog rank can change from project to project. Depending on recent performance as well as on what men and positions are available, a walking boss on one job might be a gang member on another and vice versa. Also, there is no pay grade: Except for the project superintendent, all sandhogs take home the same $45 an hour. Counting the money directed into union-benefit funds, the rate is closer to $100 an hour. In a busy year, a sandhog can make more than $100,000. (Financial compensation is one thing the sandhogs and the military most assuredly do not have in common. In 2012, basic pay for an Army private first class with less than two years of experience is $21,089.)

While the sandhogs are among the highest-earning laborers in the country, they give the lie to any public perception of union sloth, of work being needlessly, greedily dragged out. "The faster we get the job done," says 51-year-old, 30-year-veteran Scott Chesman, "the more work the city is likely to give us." Plus, on a job like pouring concrete, speed is imperative.

For the Second Avenue tunnels, the concrete was trucked in from Queens and delivered underground through a six-inch diameter pipe called a slick line. The slick line is screwed together in 10-foot segments, each costing $400. On this project, the slick line stretched as long as 1,500 feet. If the concrete is not applied to the tunnel quickly enough, or if the balance of retarder and accelerator in the mix isn't precise, or if one of the trucks gets stuck in traffic, the concrete in the slick line begins to set up. When this happens, with $60,000 worth of slick line at stake, the trucks have to stop pumping, and the slick line has to be flushed, what's called "shooting the rabbit." That's as much as a quarter-mile of concrete expelled into a pile that must be shoveled into muck bags—roughly 40 pounds per bag once hardened—and then wheelbarrowed and heaved by hand, bag by bag, into a dumpster. Lunch and urination are infrequent. (Even when working fast, the work is slow-going. Because of the six hours it takes the concrete to fully set and the time necessary to break down and move and reassemble the multi-ton steel arch form, progress is limited to at most 120 feet per day.)

Pride and competitiveness also motivate the sandhogs. None of the three shifts—day, swing, and graveyard—want to be shown up and thus subjected to endless, merciless trash talk. These good-natured rivalries also exist within the shifts: Brooklyn versus the Bronx, Grenada versus Carriacou, especially Army versus Marines. "I'm always busting Buzzell's balls," says 35-year-old Paul Salamone, who served in the Marines from 1995 to 1999 and joined Local 147 in January 2011. "You know, Army stands for 'Aren't Ready for the Marines Yet.' And he busts my balls for not seeing any combat. But I love Tom. At the end of the day, there's that bond between us, even deeper than the bond between all sandhogs."

Just as much as in the tunnels, this chest-puffing and barb-trading takes place in the hog house, the warren of conjoined, windowless trailers where the sandhogs change and stow their clothes—what is the military equivalent of a barrack, though also a commissary and, to some extent, even a chapel, for there is a distinct sacredness to the place. This particular job's hog house was located on the southeast corner of 93rd Street and Second Avenue, but every job has one, and each one is essentially the same: closet-size office for the steward; lockers graffitied with the occupant's name and a patriotic slogan or union salutation or two ("Here's to those who love NYC sandhogs, and to hell with the rest"); American flag hanging from the ceiling; toilets and sinks and showers; washer and dryer ("Our wives would leave us if we made them clean our clothes," Scott Chesman says); space heaters; soda machine; refrigerator; coffee station. The scent of grounds is just one component of a pungent potpourri that also includes sweat, mildew, Lava soap, diesel gasoline, cigarettes, and cigars. Butts stamped out on the plywood floor are later swept up by the hog-house man, a retired sandhog who serves as custodian. There is no radio or music. A bulky TV atop the lockers is rarely turned on.

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