Saturday, April 22, 2000

Stadium builders: Steel nerves and iron endurance

BY John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Doug Thomas of Newport welds down the steel framework in the upper deck.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        A few minutes after sunrise, a crescent moon hangs over Paul Brown Stadium. Gray clouds are clearing out. Construction crews are coming in.

        Workers in pickups and cars queue up on Mehring Way, waiting to enter parking lots east of the unfinished bowl. It's 6:35 a.m.

        If all goes as planned, 65,600 fans will converge here Aug. 19 to watch the Cincinnati Bengals play their first preseason game. But for now, the stadium pulsates with a different kind of activity.

        It's a community unto itself, a mini-city composed of carpenters and crane operators, laborers and plumbers, ironworkers and electricians, fireproofers and masons and more. On any given day, the work force ranges from 940 to 980.

        They scatter over the 1.85 million square feet of enclosed space, the equivalent of 32 football fields.

        A project this big has its own food vendors, security force and garbage pickup. It has an assortment of vehicles such as Gators and EZ-GOs that look like golf carts on steroids.

Fire-retardant particles float past the night sky as Ronald Dean of Greenfield sprays the end-zone plaza ceiling.
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        It has mud.

        “You gotta like the mud,” carpenter Ernie Gamble says. “You can't be afraid to get wet, or cold.”

        You can't be bothered by heat, either. Or dust. Or sweat. Or grime. If you work construction, you know your ears will be assaulted by the incessant drone of heavy equipment, the buzz of power saws, the pounding of hammers.

        You can't worry about those who curse the $450 million stadium complex because of the tax bite. You can't concern yourself with people's opinion of Mike Brown. You can't fret about cost overruns beyond your control.

        You're a construction worker with a job to do: Build a landmark, the likes of which hasn't been seen here since Riverfront Stadium — now Cinergy Field — rose just east of the Roebling Suspension Bridge.

        Ernie Gamble of Florence helped build that stadium, too. He was an apprentice carpenter back in 1968 when he worked on Cinergy's outside walls and parking garage.

        “You're either cut out for it or you ain't cut out for it,” says Mr. Gamble, who is 51. He's talking about carpentry, but he could be referring to any of the construction trades.

        You want to see who's cut out for this?

        They're walking in now from the parking lots, into the mud created by an early-morning rain. They're carrying coolers and wearing hard hats.

Harold Roseman of Colerain Twp. inspects rails in a seven-story elevator shaft.
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Danger everywhere
        A large painted hamburger adorns the front of the Riverfront Foods trailer, which faces Mehring Way. Owner Andrew White is inside, ready to dispense coffee and doughnuts to workers. “They don't have much time but to stop, grab something and go,” he says.

        Then they trek into the stadium, up the ramps, and — watch out for that Gator! Drivers sometimes sound a warning beep when they whip around corners, but not always.

        Up where 36-year-old Larry S. Bills works, there's no concern about construction traffic. He's straddling a section of the canopy steel, 170 feet above the ground. The blue flame of his welding torch sends sparks cascading onto concrete a floor below.

        Behind him, to the west, angry storm clouds approach. Before long, they unleash sheets of rain, forcing him and other ironworkers to find refuge on a lower level. The Mount Orab man waits out the rain with a cup of steaming coffee.

        “The meanest iron I've ever messed with,” he says of the canopy steel he helped wrestle into place. It's all odd angles and unusual shapes.

        “A lot of it's pipe. Bad stuff to work on. Once you start to come off it, if you're fallin', there's nothin' to grab. It's not like a beam.”

        Beams are flat. Beams have flanges, which are handy for hanging on to, or walking on.

        “In the old days, guys would be up there (on beams) running around like squirrels. They won't let you do that no more.”

        Now, an ironworker on high steel wears a harness that connects him to a safety line. “I ain't never had to test one yet,” he says. “That'd be pretty embarrassing, having to be pulled back up.”

        Then again, better to be embarrassed than dead.

        Larry Bills, an ironworker for 12 years, followed his father into the trade. His first day at work he carried bolts for the men erecting the steel framework at the Zimmer power plant.

        And the first time he had to walk an 8-inch beam, high off the ground, he gulped. “I was like, "Man, how do I do this?' and my old man was saying, "You just gotta do it.'”

        Don't look at the ground. Watch where you place your feet.

        You might think people like Larry Bills have no fear of heights.

        “There's probably some that's not afraid of it. That's not me.” Then, softly: “I don't want to fall.

        “My old man, he fell. Seventy feet into wet concrete. Broke his back, fractured his skull. He lost half a lung. It messed him up pretty bad. He come back to work, though.”

        His father, Larry C. Bills, is retired now. His son makes $20.90 an hour as a union ironworker. When father learned that son would be working at the stadium, he had two words for him: “Don't fall.”

        But you don't have to be up high to get hurt. Just ask Harold Roseman, an elevator mechanic for 11 years.

        “I've seen a bunch of old-time elevator men with only two or three fingers,” he says.

        He points to two vertical, adjoining rails in the elevator shaft where he's working. “When you drop that top rail down in there, guys (can) get their fingers too close. It'll take it off.”

        The Colerain Township man has been fortunate. He can still wiggle his fingers. All 10 of them.

        To date, the most serious construction injury has been a broken leg. It was one of 61 reported through March. The national average on a project this size: 109 injuries.

        The most common complaints, says registered nurse Joyce Riedel, are splinters, strains, sprains and headaches.

        She has worked out of a construction trailer near Mehring Way since groundbreaking two years ago. But this is her last day on the job; she's turning her wood-paneled office over to Vickie Paxton, also an RN.

        In late morning, a man appears at the door. “Got room for a crybaby?” he says.

        Phil Lamb, who is 30 and lives in Erlanger, is not a crybaby. He's a journeyman bricklayer who's been laying concrete block — each chunk is 37 pounds — in the Bengals locker room.

        His elbow has been sore for a week. “I took a day off and it got better. Today it's acting up again.”

        Ms. Paxton directs him to the room next door. It has two cots and is stocked with supplies such as bandages, tongue depressors, eye wash, gauze, cotton, alcohol prep pads.

        She applies Icy Rub, a pain relieving gel, and suggests Mr. Lamb get some Motrin from a coin-operated box outside. Return in six hours if there's no improvement, she says.

        Says Ms. Riedel: “I expect during these next few months while we're finishing up the project the injuries will pick up a little bit, because people are stressed out and working longer hours.”

        Some injuries result from repetitive tasks. You don't have to look hard to find those.

        “I've drilled over 30,000 holes,” says carpenter Dave Corman of Harrison. He's working out in the bowl, with the seat installers. Most of his workdays are spent on his knees, staring at concrete.

        Waiting for a storm to pass, he pulls off his knee pads. He's worn out two sets.

        Someday, he hopes to sit in one of the seats and watch a football game. “I'm a Bengals fan. Always have been.

        “Actually I was the first person to sit in a seat. I was the test subject. I guess they figured with my size, if I fit, anybody would.”

        Mr. Corman is 6-foot-2, 375 pounds.

        He played football for Harrison High back in the late '80s, until blowing out a knee. He took up carpentry because he comes from a family of carpenters. His grandfather helped build Cinergy Field.

        “I've been waiting to get on down here. To be part of it. I got four kids at home, two of them are boys. We'll be driving down, "Hey, look, I built that.' Braggin' rights.”

Murphy's Law
        Lunch time.

        At 11:55 a line almost a dozen people deep forms at the window of the Riverfront Foods trailer. But even more workers come looking for Walter Murphy.

        He pulls off Mehring Way in a rusty Chevy pickup trimmed in gray primer. He opens the rear gate, stocked with hot foods such as canned soup and White Castles. Then he unlatches the side gate, revealing an assortment of chips, candy and cold drinks.

        He sets aside someone's special request — a piece of lemon meringue pie — and then he's ready for business.

        The workers start grabbing.

        With one hand Mr. Murphy whips out a wad of cash. The other hand works the coin changer on his belt.

        He's fast.

        “You ready, buddy? $3 even. What else you need, brother? You ready, man? $1.75. Thank you, sir. You ready? $1.40.”

        “Got any hard candy?” someone asks.

        “Them Jolly Ranchers you like is up there. I got bag of 'em and packs of 'em for ya. Thank you, guys. See you in the morning. Stay dry.”

        Mr. Murphy, who lives in Elmwood Place, makes 24 stops around town between 8 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. He hits the stadium at 9 a.m. and noon. Count on it. The workers do.

Flush with pride
        The mini-city created by stadium construction has its dangerous jobs. Its strenuous jobs. Its dirty jobs.

        Some 50 to 60 portable toilets are positioned at various places in and around the project. They must be cleaned, of course.

        “Somebody's gotta do it,” says Bill Courtney of Addyston.

        Mr. Courtney supervises those somebodys. He is the general laborer foreman for Waite Construction, which employs laborers for duties such as pouring concrete, backfilling, emptying trash. And cleaning toilets.

        Mr. Courtney, who is 50, wears a quilted flannel shirt, a goatee and long sideburns. He's quick with a laugh. Such as when he's asked if he'll ever attend a Bengals games once the stadium is complete.

        “I'm not a fan of any of them,” he says. “I've never been in that stadium (he points to Cinergy Field) since it's been built. I did a little work over there. I just want that paycheck.”

        As for those portable toilets ...

        They are cleaned three times a week, Mr. Courtney says. Laborers use Bobcats to haul them to the stadium's lower service level, one at a time. This happens at night, because there's too much construction traffic during the day.

        Spills? “It's happened a few times,” he says. Another hazard is the low stadium ramps, which leave little overhead clearance as portable toilets are being hauled away.

        “We made some of them into a sun roof,” he says, laughing.

Day and night
        It's early afternoon in one of the stadium's luxury suites. Except, in its unfinished state, it doesn't look very luxurious. Especially from the vantage point of Barry Boss, who is on hands and knees in what will be a bathroom.

        With two co-workers, the 48-year-old tile finisher from Butleris installing slate floors and applying grout.

        “I'll probably never be back in this place to see anything I've done,” Mr. Boss says, dipping a sponge into a bucket. “If I was in the stadium, I'd be sittin' in one of those seats out there. I'd never be in a box like this.”

        Most Bengals tickets range from $35 to $50, although club level seats go higher.

        But Mr. Boss probably won't be in a stadium seat, even though his wife has held Bengals season tickets the past 15 years. She goes with her sister and brother, not her husband.

        “I sit at home on the couch where I'm close to the refrigerator and bathroom,” Mr. Boss says.

        By the time Mr. Boss' shift ends at 3:30, Ken Howard's is just beginning. He's night superintendent for construction manager Turner Barton Malow D.A.G., and will monitor the work of subcontractors until 1 a.m.

        “It's big thrill, to see this develop,” he says. “Once they step up the night crews, (the project) will really change.”

        This day, only about 40 workers are here for second shift.

        Some, such as workers for S.W. Franks Construction, stay only as long as there's daylight. They're on the playing field, moving dirt, spreading gravel.

        Clevelander Todd Vanek, the crew's 30-year-old project manager, wears a hard hat peppered with stickers from stadium fields he's worked on, including Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Cleveland Indians.

        His 10-man crew works 12-hour days, six days a week.

        “All you have time for is dinner and sleep,” he says.

        “The guys I work with are like my family. I see them more than I see my wife.” Whom he met, by the way, while in Baltimore working on the Ravens' field.

        As darkness settles over the stadium, there's still activity inside, if you know where to look.

        In the Bengals administrative offices on the south side, Mike Abney, John Wyatt and Rob Mason quietly eat dinner with a riverfront view. They'll spend this night hand-patching the fireproofing material on steel and concrete.

        Another fireproofing crew works on the stadium's north side against a backdrop of city lights.

        “We're the most hated guys on the job,” a smiling Bob Moorman, a foreman for Omni Fireproofers, says.

        Workers wearing masks and goggles use large hoses to spray the fireproofing material, which resembles oatmeal. But once the stuff is airborne, tiny particles can get into unprotected eyes and down workers' necks. And so they work late, when no one else is around.

Nocturnal visitors
        At the construction entrance on Mehring Way, a humming generator powers portable lights near a security shack. Guard Makayla Babineaux, who is 18 and lives downtown, is on duty.

        She likes her job. She likes the people. Only one thing makes her nervous.

        “Under here. That's where they are,” she says, pointing to the base of her 6-by-4-foot outpost. “They come from everywhere, this way, that way, and they hide under there.”


        She sees them scurry around at night; and she hears them under the shack floor.

        Generally speaking, people are less of a menace.

        Another guard, Shernon West, has had to stop joggers from entering the job site.

        “I told them they couldn't pass,” she says.

        “We're taxpayers,” the joggers countered.

        Taxpayers will have their chance to roam around. In due time.

        By then, most of workers in hard hats will be gone.


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