Photography Exhibit Depicts Subterranean New York City

Tue April 04, 2006 - Northeast Edition

NEW YORK (AP) Eight-hundred feet down, sandhogs are working around the clock toward completion of what has been called the largest construction project in the western hemisphere. But the sound of their giant drill is so buffered by layers of rock that New Yorkers sleep undisturbed, and even the dogs don’t bark.

All the more reason for “The Sandhog Project,” an exhibit of photographs that opened on Jan. 9 at Grand Central Terminal, offering glimpses of work being done on the Third Water Tunnel, a huge conduit that will one day carry 280 million gal. of water a day under the city.

The photos are as close as Gothamites will ever get to the $6-billion project, at least until they turn on a faucet in approximately 2015 — the estimated date for the tunnel’s completion — and draw water that has traveled through the 60-mi. underground labyrinth from an upstate reservoir.

In addition to cavernous, eerily lit chambers filled with heavy equipment, photographer Gina LeVay’s exhibit includes life-size portraits of sandhogs, a few of whom were present to explain what motivates men to spend their lives underground in one of the world’s riskiest occupations.

“The money. That’s what I go down there for,” said Dennis O’Neill, a native of Brooklyn who has been a sandhog since 1970, when work began in the water tunnel. He also worked on subways and other projects.

“It’s a different world down there,” said O’Neill, standing near a life-size photo of himself. “You start when you’re young and dumb … and after a while you make a name for yourself, then it’s 10 years, next it’s 20 years, next it’s 30 years, and you say, where the hell did it all go — like we all do.”

O’Neill said incidents such as the deaths of 12 West Virginia coal miners who perished underground recently are “in the back of your mind, this type of catastrophe, it’s something you don’t let go, but it’s not something you go down with every day. Otherwise you wouldn’t go down.”

Like others in dangerous work, sandhogs develop a strong camaraderie, he said. “You start out with 100 guys and you shake it out and 20 years later there’s 15 left, and those are your friends.”

The Third Water Tunnel, which will expand the city’s water delivery capacity and provide maintenance access to two other tunnels opened in 1917 and 1936, has cost the lives of 23 sandhogs and a 12-year-old boy who fell into a shaft.

In New York, where the word sandhog apparently originated during the building of underwater caissons for the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1870s, the job is a family tradition, said Jim McCluskey, whose father and grandfather were sandhogs before him.

In Local 147 of the Tunnel Workers Union, “there’s the Barrs, the Fitzsimmonses, the McCluskeys, the O’Donnells, the Costellos, the Sylvesters, all traditional families,” he said. “I got my union book when I got out of high school.”

He said safety has improved with such technology as the “TBM,” or tunnel boring machine, that since 1980 has replaced some dependence on explosives and improved safety, but it also has cut back on union jobs. There were “once 25, 26 guys in a gang; it’s now down to about six guys,’” he said.

Nostalgia brought Dick Erle to the exhibit, where he recalled his one year as a sandhog at age 19 before he went off to college and became a clinical psychologist.

“The work was very hard but it was great when you walked out at the end of the day,’” Erle said.

“The operating engineers on the surface — they sit around and tell dirty jokes. A good operating engineer can tell a million dirty jokes without repeating himself,” Erle said. “The tunnel guys — at the end of the day they go to a bar and talk about ’driving tunnel.’ It’s a way of life and there are very many things about it that I miss very much.”

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