Sandhogs Tunneling Under Second Avenue


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.”

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.

Then there are the ex-servicemen. Local 147 can claim members from every branch and practically every American conflict over its century-long history. There’s no telling how many veterans are in the union; no such records are kept. (Additionally, there are at least a couple of sandhogs still on active duty and awaiting redeployment.) They are a minority among the group; out of the approximately 100 sandhogs who worked on the finished segment of Second Avenue, Barr—himself a former Marine—estimates a dozen or so have military experience. But the two careers are strikingly similar, and these similarities have helped Tom Buzzell readjust to civilian life.

A few months into Buzzell’s first tour in Iraq, throughout which he was stationed at Kirkuk Regional Air Base, a friend and fellow private first class was killed in a suicide attack. “I didn’t see him, but I saw the Humvee he was brought back to base in,” he says. “I just remember all the blood pouring out, like in that Mel Gibson movie When We Were Soldiers.” During that same tour, an Iraqi government official was gunned down in a taxi. Buzzell was one of the first troops on the scene. “I opened the door, and the guy’s brains fell out all over my boots.”

Buzzell began his second tour at a forward operating base in northern Baghdad. “The place didn’t even have a name,” he says. Buzzell had been promoted to staff sergeant, and one night about two months in, his platoon was traveling down a dirt road in three Strykers. As vehicle squad leader, he was driving the first Stryker. It was raining. The road got muddy. The eight-wheeled transport vehicles kept getting stuck. Finally, Buzzell ordered that they turn back. A day or two later, once the rain had stopped and the road had dried, another platoon set out on the same route. A hundred or so yards from where he had turned back was an IED. There were nine men in the Stryker. Six were so severely wounded they never returned to combat. The other three were killed. Two had their spines crushed when they were slammed into the roof. The vehicle squad leader was blown out of the Stryker. “I heard he was just a pile of mush,” Buzzell says. “He had a brand-new baby at home. He was always talking about that baby.”

Toward the end of that second tour, Buzzell’s platoon and three others were sent to reinforce an FOB that had been under increasing attack located just outside Sadr City. Its walls were only 15 feet tall, and the high buildings of Sadr City offered snipers unobstructed shots. Jerry-rigged ramps were propped outside the base walls, and pickup trucks and Jeeps loaded with homemade bombs of concertina, barbed wire, nails, and other miscellaneous shrapnel were launched over. Platter charges tore apart Bradley transmissions and sliced clean through the barrels of Abrams tanks. The living conditions didn’t help morale. When the four platoons first arrived, there were no beds; they slept in the Strykers. They only got one hot meal a week; the rest of the time they ate MREs. There were no showers for the first month; they rinsed one another down with bottled water.

Somehow, during Buzzell’s three months there, none of the four platoons’ members were killed. Relative order was restored, and the platoons earned much renown. Once they were brought to a camp 30 minutes from the FOB so that they could shower and call loved ones. “You could hear all the whispers, see people pointing,” he says. “‘That’s them.’ ‘Look, there they are.'” The adulation was all but lost on Buzzell and his fellow soldiers. “You hear about that ‘thousand-yard stare.’ We were sitting in this waiting area, and I looked around, and everyone had it.” Buzzell, meanwhile, had removed a piece of cardboard from the packaging of an MRE and started writing down his personality traits. For the rest of his time at the FOB, he kept the list in his pants pocket. “I wanted my son to know what kind of man I was if I didn’t make it back.”

Once Buzzell returned home, it didn’t take his wife, Roni, long to notice he had changed. “As soon as he got off the plane,” she says. “He had no patience. He got agitated at every little thing.”

“I told her it was normal,” Buzzell says, “that it was bound to take us some time to get comfortable with each other again after being apart for so long. But even when I was by myself, I acted different. It was really noticeable when I was driving. In a Stryker, if anybody was in your way, you just knocked them out of it. Being in a car and having to obey traffic signals and watch out for other people was scary. My road rage was really bad. Before, if somebody cut me off, I’d just let it go—they’re idiots. Now, I’d be trying to chase them down.” Eventually, Buzzell sought therapy and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He began taking antidepressants. This helped. But so did becoming a sandhog. “The biggest thing was the financial aspect,” Roni says. “He started making better money, and that made him feel like he was more of a provider for the family than when he was at Avis. It helped give him that sense of purpose he’d been missing.”

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.

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.

The centerpiece of the hog house is the picnic table. On its benches and pulled-up chairs, the sandhogs gather before and after each shift and talk. The topics and manner of conversation are what might be expected from blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth, heterosexual males who go the majority of each day without seeing natural light or a member of the opposite sex and who, when without the time or bodily restraint to trudge the mile through ankle-deep mud and water to the nearest Port-O-Let, resort to a muck bag and a plastic bucket—which is to say the same topics and manner of conversation found most anywhere in the world straight guys happen to be congregating.

“Royce Gracie. Pound for pound, best ever.”

“You know what’s good? Fucking pomegranate juice. Fucking amazing. I mean even without vodka.”

“Two things you never tell anybody you have: money and jumper cables.”

“Utah girls.”

Mostly, though, the talk is about the job—it always comes back to the job. The current job, past jobs, future jobs. Drill-and-shoot and cut-and-cover, secant piles and slurry walls, top and bottom pours. One frequent subject is the generational gap. Some of the older sandhogs refer to themselves as miners and disdainfully dub the younger sandhogs mere tunnel laborers. The difference is the state-of-the-art machinery that prohibits, as one miner puts it, “getting to know the rock, have a love affair with the rock.” The tunnel laborers ruefully concede this. But as Paul Salamone says, “I’m sure I’ll be saying the same thing 20 years from now when everything’s automated, and the young guys don’t even have to go down into the hole.”

Tom Buzzell thinks both terms are inadequate.

“Miners are guys who dig holes. Yeah, we do that. But we also pour concrete. Does that mean we’re masons? We also weld. Does that make us welders? We also do electrical work. So are we electricians? That’s what’s unique about sandhogs. We do all those things. Just call us ‘sandhogs.'”

One benefit of the TBM and other technical advancements is increased safety. Thanks to rock bolts and time-delayed fuses and the like absent during the profession’s early history—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration wasn’t established until 1970—cave-ins and blowouts and the bends are no longer commonplace. No more is it “a man a mile.” Yet death remains a real and constant threat. Just this past November on the East Side Access, fallen concrete killed a 26-year-old sandhog, his father working nearby and witnessing the accident. It was the first fatality on a job since 1997, but there are few sandhogs who can’t claim a close call similar to that of Devin Bates. (Whether they are to be believed is something else. Sandhogs are inveterate embellishers, Tom Sawyer–caliber yarn-spinners. As Chesman says, “When it comes to sandhogs, the rule of thumb is, ‘Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.'”) In addition, and apart from chronic aches and pains, there are the daily minor injuries such as skin abrasions and burns from concrete, which can be so severe as to warrant an emergency-room visit. Every sandhog sooner or later comes by at least one penny-size pinkish scar from a concrete burn—a rite of passage and identifying mark akin to the military tattoo. (And, of course, there are those who have actual sandhog-themed tattoos.)

This perilousness as well as the job’s typically ad hoc nature is well familiar to the ex-servicemen sandhogs.

“The saying we had in the Marines was ‘Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome,'” Salamone says. “It’s the same thing in the tunnels.”

Adds Buzzell: “The misery is part of what breeds camaraderie. It’s not like an office environment. We have to watch each others’ backs, keep each other in line.”

Actually, one of the things Buzzell enjoys most about the job, and the way it most reminds him of Army life, is its physicality. Although he hasn’t touched a free weight since he was discharged, he’s built like a strong safety. Most sandhogs appear in little need of a gym membership and—though perhaps due as much to limited sun exposure—are often taken for a good 10 years younger.

Yet any outward appearance of health can belie what might be the most persistent danger to sandhogs: lung diseases, such as emphysema and silicosis, resulting from inhalation of the dust raised by blasting and drilling. According to a 2006 Newsday article, respiratory problems are attributed to most of the approximately 80 percent of sandhogs who qualify for workmen’s compensation upon retirement. In this case, too, modernity has abetted safety: Unlike their forbears, today’s sandhogs use respirators, dust suppressant, and water-fed drills, and air quality is regularly monitored by OSHA and contractors alike; last month, OSHA fined the consortium of contractors overseeing the tunnel work south of 72nd Street $8,500 for violations including excessive silica levels. But no matter the precautions, dust will always be an inescapably hazardous part of the job, and it was severe enough last November that construction on the tunnels was briefly suspended because of complaints from neighborhood residents.

“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.”

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.