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National Geographic Show Captures Dangers of Roadwork in the Shadows

Fri August 08, 2008 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla

The lead highwaymen of the well-regarded Salisbury, Mass., contracting company SPS New England — who fill the first night of the first episode of “Night Shift: Road Crew” — will make for riveting viewing when it airs on the National Geographic Channel on Aug. 20 at 9 p.m. The 21-part series is called “Shadow Works,” and its initial installment focuses on a group of guys called “the best of the best.”

They are solid men of substance with little kids’ names: “Fooch,” “Troll,” “Puppy” and “J.T.”

An inside look at the show reveals three separate segments, which show the men keeping major roadways safe, all while being mostly invisible: repairing broken roads quickly, in all sorts of conditions, then leaving the road site before the morning commuters even know they were there.

The first segment focuses on the SPS New England crew as they fix ripped up sections of Interstate 93 over the Mystic River in Medford, Mass.

“The bridge deck repair team is a group of guys that we have accumulated. Really special guys who are tough, smart and fast moving,” said SPS New England’s Sr. Vice President Tim McClaughlin in the episode.

The cameras follow SPS foreman Tom “Fooch” Fuccione at home in the wee hours, preparing to go to work, needing to rearrange many aspects of his personal life to make his home life work.

“I’m naturally nocturnal,” Fuccione said. “I don’t like the 9 to 5 daily grind. Been there, done that, too.”

The documentary goes inside the Fuccione home where viewers will meet Fooch’s wife of 22 years, Lori, and his daughter.

“It’s hard on a relationship,” Lori said. “You have 20 minutes to say, ’Hello,’ and ’Goodbye.’ There is a lot of heavy work with concrete. It’s dangerous. I just hope he comes home every night.”

The crew adds that “speed” is their worst fear; the 65-plus-mile-per-hour speed of vehicles late at night, buzzing by their orange cones, skirting their delicate, vulnerable work site area.

“You’re standing out there, and you’ve got a barrel between you and a vehicle going 60 to 75 miles an hour,” said Nathan “Puppy” Derick, an SPS crewman. “It’s a little scary.”

The documentary states that there are some 1,000 fatalities on U.S. highways in work zones every year.

Freezing Conditions

On this particularly brutal February night, the crews are further spooked by a lunar eclipse, which will reduce moonlight and distract curious drivers. A small caravan of trailers bring the crew’s gear as the men cautiously set up their work zone with hundreds of cars zipping by them.

“The bridge will tell you it’s own story,” added Fooch. “You could go there looking at a little pothole and say, ’Man, we’re going to have an early night.’ You open up a can of worms. All of a sudden you keep going and everything’s failed, rotted.”

Camera crews follow the men on the dangerous four-lane highway where traffic never slows down. Workers have to extend their area into a second lane to repair ripped up asphalt patches. They need to place fresh concrete in three separate places and add new reinforcement bars before the morning commute.

It is 24 degrees and the winds are gusting up to 37 miles per hour. Worse than “rush” hour, it is now “lush” hour — 1 to 3 a.m.

“’Lush hour,’ probably between midnight and two or three in the morning. People are flying around between bars. They’re all over the place,” said SPS Foreman Dave “Troll” Bellwood. “That’s dangerous time of the night. Too much waffling. Too much drinking. And we’re in the way and they don’t care.”

In 2006, Massachusetts recorded 137 deaths due to drunk driving.

In dramatic footage, the Stick Figure Production film crews show how the cold has frozen the hose on a pneumatic jackhammer, stopping it from functioning. In addition, water from an air compressor has frozen, resulting in a stuck gun.

The SPS crew has to dislodge the old concrete in the huge potholes and frozen sunken regions beneath the re-bars with a blow torch. Once done, they mix, stir and lay rapid set concrete, a total “team effort” to fill a 16-by-14-ft. hole in as little as 45 minutes. Then, they do the same to two other huge holes.

Before the brutal Boston commute begins, somehow they have finished.

“I don’t think they realize that we were even there,” said Fooch. “But they are the same people who hit the same pothole every day and all of a sudden they finally go over the bridge and say, ’Wow! They fixed it!’ ”

Marine Proves Himself

But this is only one-third of the first episode of “Shadow Works.” A second segment focuses on a former Marine named Eric Gaumont who now is one of the newer members of the SPS highway bridge crew trying to prove his worth to the veterans; not a far cry from what he had to endure in the military.

The camera follows Gaumont and his girlfriend Brielle Watkins — who is also an ex-Marine (they fell in love while serving together) — as they try to make his taxing new job and their new civilian life together work as well.

Gaumont, still learning the various rigors of his job, gets the call to work on a 47-year-old, full-depth bridge in Haverhill. Cracks have spread through the span and the crew must fix them under similar graveyard shift conditions while being a man short because another new crew member, Jay Soucy, has broken fingers in a machine at the work site.

(Soucy, his hand in a cast, would later return from the hospital, offering to help out in any way he could.)

In the middle of the night, staying visible is essential to staying alive. By the end of the night, shoulder literally to the wheel, Gaumont has had a hand in mixing 40 batches of concrete, earning great respect from fellow crew members and supervisors like Fooch and Troll.

“The guys who come in with the really big muscles and say, ’Oh, I can do anything!’ [Well] In ten minutes [they say] ’I got a blister.’ Aawwww. I want to go home,’ ” laughed Fooch, nodding to Eric Gaumont. “But if they are killing themselves trying … these are the people you want because you can work with them.”

Watching Out for His Men

The third segment of “Shadow Works: Night Shift: Road Crew” focuses on SPS Superintendent J.T. Turcotte whose stressful job it is to supervise the entire crew; making the calls that may lead to greater danger, balancing whether to tackle certain jobs in difficult conditions, knowing that delays mean his men won’t get paid.

The Stick Figure film cameras follow Turcotte at home as well.

“I miss so much of my children’s lives,” he said, in order to watch his men do their jobs.

Turcotte’s tone shifts as he suits up with hard hat, vest and other gear. The family provider becomes his crew’s protector.

“I watched one of my guys get hit by a car,” he said, tight lipped. “I don’t want to see it again.” He relates a personal story of how none of his old friends from his hometown can believe he makes his living working on high bridges because he once hurt himself falling off a bridge as a child.

On another brutally cold February night this year, Turcotte is leading his SPS crew to repair the very busy, constantly worn-out I-495 bridge over the Merrimac River. Worse, a winter storm is less than 30 miles away and closing fast.

Turcotte makes the call to go ahead with the job, despite dire forecasts. The personal anguish of his decision is etched on his hard face; but it is the right one. The storm brushes them, but soon holds off, and the series of patches — some of which go to the bottom of the bridge itself — get finished before twilight.

The weary crew goes home to a great payday, which seems to make it all worthwhile, at least for another week.

“For all the people who never see any of this work going on, they have no idea what’s happening each night to keep the roads passable and safe,” said McClaughlin. “There’s an awful lot of work being done at night.” CEG

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