Sandhogs Tunneling Under Second Avenue

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

"Nobody complained when it was just us breathing that stuff in," Scott Chesman says.

Chesman, who was the electrical walking boss on the finished portion of Second Avenue, has a B.S. in geology from Indiana University and a Ph.D. in geochemistry from City University of New York. He never served in the military. But he does have some experience with war.

"I was working out in Queens at the time, on City Tunnel No. 3. I was on swing shift, so I was at home the morning of 9/11."

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

The next day, Scott and his younger brother, Chris—a steamfitter who occasionally moonlights as a sandhog—drove from their homes in Pearl River to Ground Zero to volunteer. When the police wouldn't let them through, they sneaked in by a side street. The Chesmans had brought their toolkits—pliers, hammer, crowbar. They seemed to be the only ones prepared. "At first, the only equipment down there was plastic buckets," Scott says. "It was just people filling up buckets by hand. You looked around and saw all these cops with guns. You didn't need a gun. You needed a blowtorch."

Leaving Pearl River at 4 in the morning and not returning until 5 or 6 at night, the Chesmans went back to Ground Zero for the next three days. By the time the blowtorches and cranes arrived, rescue and recovery had become simply recovery.

"I remember one area where we were digging, I found a waiter's coat from Windows on the World."

On their third day, the Chesmans were again barred entry by the police. A National Guard truck was driving by. The driver stopped and persuaded the police to let them hitch a ride. Later that same day, as Scott tirelessly cleared debris, he looked up and saw some recognizable faces.

"A group of sandhogs, about six of them."

As ABC News reported last September, many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are now helping rebuild the World Trade Center via the nonprofit organization Helmets to Hardhats, which provides construction-industry job training and placement to former soldiers. The program has also helped veterans gain entry into Local 147. But more commonly, it's the outreach of sympathetic sandhogs like Devin Bates and Pat Barr, who himself has recruited a few ex-servicemen.

A military background alone, however, doesn't merit "getting a book," or obtaining union membership. Just like everybody else aspiring to join, one first has to shape. Shapers are the replacements for sandhogs who miss work. An hour before each shift, they group outside the hog house and wait. Days, weeks, even months might pass before a shaper receives a shift. Only after shaping enough to make a sufficient impression, and only when there is enough work to justify the addition of a new union member, does one get a book. Buzzell got his in three weeks. It took Salamone seven months—and he was arguably as determined a shaper as there has ever been, during one three-week period taking multiple double and triple shifts and sleeping sporadically on a table in the hog house bathroom. One former Marine on Second Avenue has been shaping for a year and still hasn't gotten his book.

However, even a book doesn't guarantee work. The city might be flush with tunneling, but with so much of it occurring simultaneously, many of those sandhogs newly finished on Second Avenue must now vie for the few jobs open on the East Side Access and other projects long underway.

Scott Chesman will next work on Second Avenue south of 72nd Street. Paul Salamone, Devin Bates, and Pat Barr aren't sure where they're headed yet. Tom Buzzell won't be going anywhere for at least four months. He recently broke his right fibula in a motorcycle accident. But he has already had calls from senior sandhogs assuring him not to worry. There will be a job waiting for him.

The three Second Avenue shifts passed the hat and collected $2,700. Tom broke out in tears more than once. He's not afraid to say it. About that, none of the guys would ever bust his balls.

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