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From "We're Building a Bridge" Hurtling Bolts and Red-Hot Rivets
Reprinted from the San Francisco News-Call, 1935
Come behind the scenes with the men who are building the greatest bridges in the world. Catch the thrills of their jobs from these stories which have never been told before in print. You'll discover some of the inside wonders of what "We're Building a Bridge" actually means in this last of a series of articles. - The Editor.
There's a tang of the Western Front on the construction of the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges.
Helmeted workers must go on the job as though into trenches, protected from death-dealing aerial bombardment.
Then the "bullets" or "hand grenades" whistle though the air, those helmets - hardhats they call them - may save them crushed skulls.
For dangers every bit as real as gunfire on a battlefield may strike any moment to men on the bridge-building front. Missiles of death for the bridge-workers are falling rivets, big bolts, wrenches or other objects, which accidentally dropped or kicked off a tower, whiz down like bullets.
Worker Leaps Back
The plunger of a rivet gun drops from the 746-foot tower of the Gate span. A worker hears it strike and bounce off a steel beam - he leaps back and, where he had stood a moment before, the plunger whacks a big chunk out of solid concrete. … It might have been his head.
Even a helmet won't stand a direct hit from a rivet falling hundreds of feet. …
A wrench drops off a Bay Bridge tower, striking a glancing blow on a helmeted worker below, but smashes through the hardhat. The worker gets a scalp wound, but if he hadn't had that hat he would have been killed.
Twenty-five bridge workers have been saved from crushed heads, sure death, by the hardhats. That's the count of L.K. Reinhart of the Industrial Accident Commission.
Electrician's Helper Killed
Bernhard Hauffman, 31-year-old, electrician's helper, went to work from San Francisco up in the confined cell of the Bay Bridge tower nearest the island last Nov. 13. He left off his hardhat. A bolt came bouncing down the shaft. He couldn't dodge it. The bolt pierced his head, killing him.
Against that one tragedy, the bridge workers have had countless narrow escapes. They shrug off the close calls. As long as they escape by even an inch of their lives, they don't consider the episodes terrifying. And the most rigid rules are enforced to curtail missiles being dropped.
The moment a worker hears the ominous sounds of a piece of steel hurtling against the sides of a tower, he yells "Duck!" and everybody streaks to cover if he can. But a rivet weighing one to ten pounds can shoot down from the top of a 500-foot Bay Bridge tower in exactly 5 1/2 seconds, traveling some 175 feet a second as it gets near the bottom. It takes quick action to dodge.
Hardhats For Visitors
Every worker and visitor to the bridge must wear the hardhats, which, incidentally, aren't metal, but made of a composition fabric under pressure. And if you could see, as some workers did the other day, one falling rivet tear through three thicknesses of sheet metal and another tear a two-inch chunk out of hardened concrete - only inches away from them - you'd be thankful for the hard-boiled hats.
Yet the Western Front aspect of building bridges is just commonplace to the workers. "I'm more afraid of getting bumped off by an auto on my way home," said one worker whose experiences would send shivers up your spine. His remark is typical.
Accidents At Tunnel
Over on the tunneling at Yerba Buena Island, there have been some chilling happenings.
His left arm cut off by a conveyor belt, Earl Vandercook, 30-year-old, foreman, climbed to the top of the island. Fellow workers applied a tourniquet to keep him from bleeding to death while Vandercook calmly directed how he was to be transferred to the hospital. He lives.
Attacks of the bends, dread underwater disease suffered by divers and caisson workers, have been remarkably rare on both bridges. Decompression chambers were put on barges, ready for divers to enter them on the bay immediately and have the air pressure on their bodies stepped down.
The fight of prevention against the bends marshaled drastically after Lloyd. H. Evans died when he was brought up from a depth of 112 feet at a West Bay pier.
Chris Hansen, chief diver on the Gate pier, got tangled in his air and phone lines one day 100 feet below the surface. He took a spill, his feet flew up and there he was standing on his head with the air knocked out of his diving suit. Feebly, he phoned to the surface to be hauled up double-quick. And he was!
241 Feet Beneath The Waves
Bill Reed, chief underwater inspector, went as deep as 241 feet below the bay, an astounding feat. And one day he made so many dives that he collapsed when brought to the surface. After that, his daring was nipped by a rule that he couldn't make more than one deep dive a day.
Jack Graham, construction superintendent on the Golden Gate pier, several times got into a diving suit and went to the bottom to make his observations first-hand when storms and the sea smashed away at the project.
High adventure on the bridges will be going on for at least a year and a half more. You'll be able to catch glimpses of it from the waterfront or ferryboat. Maybe you'll want to catch workers out at dizzy heights with field glasses.
Likely you'll not see such a thriller as when Havelin Strout, engineer in the East Bay, slipped off a narrow steel beam 100 feet up. He grabbed a pipe and pulled himself back. But the way workers move around at dizzy heights like human spiders will give you a thrill such as the world has seldom seen in construction work.
Watch The Cables
Sensational days of the bridge-building - for the public - lie ahead. This spring, catwalks will be swung on steel cables between the four towers of the Bay Bridge, and in the summer the stage of cable spinning for the world's longest suspension span will begin over the Gate.
Two hundred or more men will pick their way across narrow catwalks that sway higher in the air than any building in San Francisco to guide the wires that will form the 28-inch cables of the Bay Bridge. Out at the Gate, the cable spinners' jobs will be a couple hundred feet farther skyward - 746 feet at the top above the water.
Pick a ringside seat for the construction thrill of the 20th century!