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Ironworkers Brave Dizzying Heights Over Portland

Construction continues on Portland's Park Avenue West Tower, which can already be seen from almost any corner of the city.

Wed December 31, 2014 - National Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Stand on the roof of Portland and look down. Way down.

You could die a dozen ways up here. You could slip off the open deck. You could fall down the elevator shaft. A gust of wind...a swinging beam...

Cables no thicker than Bic pens run around the deck and keep you safe.


In the distance, Mt. Hood feels about eye level.

It’s not natural to work up this high unless you’re an ironworker. These days, they’re crawling all over the Park Avenue West Tower, which pokes up behind the downtown Nordstrom and can already be seen from almost any corner of the city.

Ironworkers are the ones who swing iron, bully it into place, weld it, bolt it and walk on it with cat-like tread. The only things that stop them are ice, high wind or lightning, which scatters them faster than quitting time.

From the ground, they look interchangeable in their hard hats and reflector vests. Up close, they radiate swagger. They come off their shifts at 3:30 p.m., tools swaying from their belts, maybe a cigarette hanging from a lip, cracking jokes, heading home.

They look at the Portland skyline and see their handiwork. They may toil in obscurity, but their work will last long after they’re gone.

”We don’t go to the office,’ says veteran ironworker Mark Johnson, ”we build it.’

Thus their nickname: Cowboys.

Like walking on a sidewalk

Ironworkers such as Johnson and Brian Veelle are a tight group and not exactly chatty. Their work speaks for itself. Why would anyone want to talk to them about their jobs? Put steel in their hands, they know what to do. Routine. Repetitive. No big deal.

”Way of life,’ Johnson says. Veelle nods. ”Starts getting typical after a few floors,’ he says.

Part of the job is having a ”very healthy respect for heights,’ Johnson says. But that takes getting used to.

Working at elevation actually gets easier the higher up you go, says Veelle, an ironworker for 24 years. ”You can’t focus. You see just what’s in front of you.’

Later, as if to demonstrate, two men saunter along beams little wider than their feet, suspended over nothing. Nylon or steel cables, strong enough to withstand 5,000 pounds of force, tether them to beams. Hard hats, eye protection, gloves and over-the-ankle boots complete the uniform.

”After you do it for a while, it’s like walking on a sidewalk,’ says beamwalker Paul Diaz, once he’s safely back on the deck.

Peril is everywhere

For months, the Park Avenue building has been rising from the dead after the recession stopped construction for four years. Work resumed in February, ironwork in April. Now, approaching pedestrians crane their necks to take it in as ironwork climbs at a pace of one floor every four days.

When the building is finished in December, 2015, it will be the fourth tallest in Portland. Owned by TMT Development, which built the nearby Fox Tower (27 stories) and Broadway Building (24), Park Avenue West will top out at 501 feet, a third as high as the Empire State Building. Offices, retail and high-end apartments will fill it. Hoffman Construction is the contractor.

Right now, it’s about half done. The concrete core is complete. Hoop skirts of iron surround the core to the 25th floor. Next come steel decks, concrete floors and fireproofing the beams. Exterior glass already begins to enclose the lower floors.

The top deck feels like a plaza - open to the sky with exhilarating views north, south, east and west. You could have a party up here, except the elevator only goes to 19, so revelers would need to climb the last three stories on ladders lashed to a yawning elevator shaft.

Peril is everywhere, even just walking on the corrugated deck. Its three-inch ridges feel as tenuous as treading on train tracks. Wind blows from all directions, capable of lifting a hardhat and landing it blocks away.

And it’s noisy. While the wind moans through the iron latticework, the air booms, crackles, buzzes and whines, echoing off surrounding buildings.

Ironworkers don’t seem to notice the noise or danger. They yank on beams dangling from the crane with chokers - cables - thick enough to anchor ocean liners. A welder showers the deck with sparks.

Some of the 42 workers on this job - one is a woman - bash bolts with eight-pound sledgehammers. Others attach cables so beam walkers can tie off. Handrail guys install stairs. A raising gang secures iron for the crane. A bellman talks to the crane guy, telling him to ”boom up,’ ”boom down.’ As soon as a load of iron lifts into the air, a second bellman on the top deck takes over talking to the crane.

Beams arrive by flatbed truck, 3,600 tons for the entire building. They start as steel, forged in mills in Indiana and Arkansas, then are loaded onto trains to Tigard, where they’re cut, drilled, sanded and bent into shape for everything from ceiling beams to vertical posts. Once fabricated, steel is called iron. A single beam can weigh 14 tons, as much as two elephants.

A cool one to go out on

In 1997, three ironworkers fell to their deaths while building a parking garage at Portland International Airport. A four-story section of iron framework collapsed, pulling the three workers, who were tied in, down with it. A fourth worker, untethered, survived after jumping clear of the collapsing structure.

Injuries are expected, Johnson says. ”Broken fingers, mashed fingers, broken bones. At some point in time you’re going to get hurt doing this job.’

Between 2009 and 2013, ironworkers won 50 workers’ compensation claims, according to the state Department of Consumer and Business Services. So far, injuries on Park Avenue West have been minor, say both Tim Ellis, dispatcher for Ironworkers Local 29 and Mark Parsons, Hoffman Construction project superintendent. An ironworker smashed a finger, Parsons says.

Like other well-paying construction jobs such as plumbing and electrical, ironwork is competitive. The freedom to choose a project and earn enough to support a family are draws.

Journeyman ironworkers on the Park Avenue West Tower make $35.85 an hour, comparable to plumbers and electricians in Portland. Every month, thousands of people apply for ironwork apprenticeship jobs with the union, Ellis says: ”They come here in droves.’

As for working in rain and cold, this is Oregon. ”If we didn’t work in bad weather, it’d never get built,’ Johnson says. ”It’s hard work, but we can’t see doing anything else.’

Don’t ask them about exercise to stay in shape. They’ll laugh. You need agility, not raw strength, Johnson says.

Neither man wants to reveal his age, but Veelle has two children, 21 and 19, and the gray-haired Johnson has four grandchildren. He’s retiring to Hawaii later this month and plans to put his college degree to work teaching a culinary class.

”I always wanted to be a chef,’ he says.

When his colleagues put the last beam in place sometime next spring, they’ll have a top-out party and lash an evergreen tree to the top beam as a symbol of unity. Workers will sign the beam and add the names of anyone who died on the job.

”This is a cool one to go out on,’ Johnson says. ”A big one like this.’

Right now, it’s lunchtime, and workers take an elevator to the ground.

Solid footing never felt so boring.


The original story can be found on The Oregonian’s website:

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