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Every day more than 660 people risk their lives to build this $328 million highway. why?

The Big Bridge


The guardrail makes the difference.

When it's installed, cars will blithely zoom back and forth on the Pocahontas Parkway. Their drivers will swerve up ramps steeper than a Micro Machines racetrack and speed along a 170-foot-high bridge built so tall ships can pass beneath it.

But right now, most visitors refuse to creep more than halfway up the lanes swooping from I-95. Maybe it's because there's only a flimsy fence guarding a 10-story drop.

Or maybe it's because, though wooden boards cover the biggest gaps between the concrete slabs, you can see between them the packed brown earth and the green James.

Without yellow lines and crimped steel rails, the edge is defined only by common sense. It's crazy to get too close.

It's crazy unless you work here, on the mammoth rise and sprawl of the long-planned Greater Richmond Connector. There is no edge for the laborers clambering over scaffolding and dangling high above the ground. They know their lives are entwined with Route 895 like steel rods running through the concrete.

Two men have already died here. On Dec. 16, 1999, a 48-foot-tall tower of reinforcing rods collapsed and crushed Israel Hernandez Cruz. It was his 27th birthday. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued two citations to construction firms on the parkway — the partners Fluor Daniel and Morrison Knudsen, which are contesting the citation, and Recchi America Inc.

And on April 17, a 500-pound support beam fell from a crane and killed Isaias Martinez Hernandez, age 36. The second incident is still under investigation by the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, but citations were issued to the same companies, says a spokeswoman for the department.

Construction jobs result in the most fatalities of any occupation in America — 1,154 nationwide in 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, the Pocahontas Parkway is as secure as a site can be, project managers point out. The injury rate on this project is only 20 percent of the national average. Workers don their hard hats and harnesses, obey rules and regulations — all the while knowing only wings could help them if they fell.

There are plenty of other jobs in Richmond. Ones safer, lower, warmer, slower. Yet 660 people have chosen to spend months and years on and around this mammoth monument, the largest construction project in Central Virginia.

A road discussed for decades, the $328 million connector between Chesterfield and Henrico counties will finally be complete in the fall of 2002. The project's planners trumpet an average savings of 12 minutes and eight miles for commuters.

For the sake of those 12 minutes, 660 men and women have labored since the fall of 1998, working from dawn 'til dusk and late into the night. They live on the edge. Literally. And none of these four would have it any other way. What drives them, only they can say.

p. Down. Up. Down. In a red cage. Eleven-and-a-half hours per day.

Sounds like hell.

But to Brenda Camden, it's fine work.

She operates the construction elevator on one of the highest parts of the Pocahontas Parkway, moving people and materials from ground to the span overhead.

Camden arrives at 6:30 a.m. Doesn't take lunch. Wants the overtime. "I love it," she says. "I love money. Money, mo' money."

But that's not the only reason she's able to rouse herself at 4:30 every morning. Working 15 stories up, without walls or windows to block the breeze, is a thrill. "Anything outdoors, I like it," she says. "Anything daring, I like it."

Elevator work gets a little dull sometimes, but Camden's hoping to soon be reassigned to finishing work, dangling in a harness over the rough edges of the ramps. "I wanna go higher," she says. "I'm not sure what they do, the finishers. I just want to be one."

There are no openings for that now, but she's patient. "At least I'm up here," she says, standing in the red-painted metal cage and surveying the skyline. "That's what I wanted."

This? With the constant noise that sends her home with a headache, the fumes that worsen her asthma and emphysema, the wearying hours?

Yep. A tomboy all her life, Camden says, "I guess I've always been a little, ummm … dangerous." She just turned 40, but no one can guess her age, she says. "My heart is young. I've got a very young heart. I'm 25!"

This is her first bridge job, but she's worked construction in Richmond for years. "I used to hang off the edge of buildings by my feet. Two people would hold me when I was painting sashes." That was years ago, when Camden was renovating apartment buildings on Floyd Avenue in the Fan. She wasn't anxious then, she says: "I had my husband on one side, my sister on the other. I knew I wasn't going anywhere."

Camden says she's not afraid of anything — at least not anything in construction. No catastrophes yet, but just in case, she knows what to do. "If the cable breaks, I push that button," Camden says with a grin, pointing to a large red knob on the elevator wall.

Does anyone pick on her? Her eyebrows leap up behind her broad sunglasses. "No." The guys respect her, Camden says, and they never try to help her because she's a woman. "Matter of fact, they persuade me. 'You can do that. You can do that.'"

"I didn't know if I was going to like working up here, the only woman," she admits. But soon she found it was easy to adjust. "I do get dirty," she says, but even under the hard hat, her honey-colored hair is smoothly in place.

Her co-workers are sweet, she says. "My boyfriend is so jealous, it's unreal. They try to bring me sandwiches, drinks, ask me out for dates."

Camden says she'll flirt a little bit — "I don't want to be no little bitch" — but she stands by her man. He also works on the site, far below on a different side. She likes it like that.

She's only been with Condotte America Inc., one of the construction firms working on the parkway, for a couple of months. The completion date for the bridge is fast approaching, but Camden's decided she doesn't want to leave. "I'm going wherever they go," she says. "I'll ask them to take me with


re you afraid of heights? We'll find out." Dave Wesson, project manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation, gets a kick out of taking people to the highest part of the parkway and watching their eyes widen. "You said you had good nerves," he says with a sly grin. "I don't believe it."

If Wesson sees you hang back, you're in for a ribbing. "See that yellow stripe down his back? Chicken!"

He has no fear. Wesson trusts the parkway. Few know as intimately as Wesson the steel sinews and concrete bones, the cranes and hoists, and legions of workers who populate this massive structure. He knows almost everyone's name.

He knows where the gaps in the road are. "I'm not stepping on that board," he says, pointing.

He oversees every step of construction, watching as concrete slabs are set on overhead trusses, threaded through with cables and pulled tight together. Even after sections of highway are complete, Wesson maintains a mental map of the jigsaw puzzle under his feet.

Standing on the highway surface, he looks down. "This segment we're standing on right here weighs 36 tons," he says, then takes three steps to the left. "This piece right here weighs 60 tons."

Both are equally unshakable. The parkway is certified Class B Seismic, he says, which means an earthquake would have to hit 9.4 on the Richter scale to topple it. Tractor-trailer trucks weighing 80,000 pounds apiece could park "bumper to bumper, curb to curb" and still wouldn't strain it. This highway will stand.

Wesson, 60, spends his days making the rounds. He rumbles over each gravelly mile of the unfinished parkway in his VDOT-issue white SUV, pausing to check with contractors to see how things are moving along.

On the site's west side, where the parkway slopes down from the James River Bridge and curves toward Laburnum Avenue, he leans out the window to greet David Scott. Scott works for English Construction Co., Inc., the firm supervising the parkway from I-295 to the river. Surveying the red clay roadbed, Wesson looks concerned.

"I believe it's about two foot off," he says.

Scott's confused. Wesson shakes his head.

"All the way from the bridge on down, we're two foot off."

A look of panic comes across Scott's face — but Wesson can't restrain his guffaws any longer. "Just playin'," he says.

A miscalculation? Not on Wesson's watch.

"You've got to do a lot of concentrating, there's no question about it," he says. The ability to remember all the numbers, names, times and sums involved in the vast project is something that "just accumulated over a period of years," he says.

Overseeing the construction of the parkway is the culmination of Wesson's 40-year career as a VDOT engineer. It's his most ambitious undertaking, and may be his last. Wesson's there nearly every day, from morning 'til night. Friday, Oct. 26, was his first day off after working 34 days straight.

"I eat lunch maybe one day a week," he says. Otherwise, he adds, he subsists on "coffee, Jack D., ginger ale and Diet Coke." Wesson's joking about the whiskey, he hastens to say. He's not a drinking man. Couldn't be — you can't afford to stumble, standing several stories above the earth.

"We are just about a hundred feet in the air over Interstate 95," Wesson announces as his truck rumbles up an unfinished ramp west of the river. On the James River bridge, the top surface of the highway will be 170 feet above the water at high tide.

He gets out of the truck and surveys the acres of gold-tinged trees and fallow farmland lying quiet below. The river flows green in the morning sunlight. "This almost looks like the Congo here," Wesson remarks. Wouldn't be surprised to see alligators sunning on the banks, he says, pointing at the vine-hung trees.

The river's 60 feet deep here — you'd probably survive a fall, Wesson says, "unless you do a belly flop. Which would be my luck."

At 672 feet long, the segment over the James is the third-largest open-span bridge in America. That means no supports stand in the water — instead, the massive ribbon of concrete stretches above it. Cables and steel reinforcers are threaded throughout, giving the span its tensile strength.

"We've got five different types of bridge on this site at once here," and 20 bridges total, Wesson says, with a pride peculiar to engineers. "Overhead truss. Underslung truss. Precast. Cast in place. Conventional steel beams on deck."

Up here, the wind never dies. Tarps flap furiously and a stray sandwich bag hovers like a bird in the breeze. Come winter, the cold will be "like murder," one of the men says.

But they'll "just put on some more clothes and keep on truckin'," Wesson says — even the Mexican workers, who are used to warmer climes. They bundle up so seriously that by February, even the slim ones look like Hulk Hogan. The crews are racing to get one lane open by the spring. "We have got to put traffic over this bridge," Wesson says.

After cars begin speeding on the road Wesson helped raise, he's not sure what he'll do next. "Mmmm … probably going to retire," he says. "I would never go back to just an ordinary, small project."

oe Quintanilla, 31, has years to go before retirement. But on this cool October day, he's excited about leaving the parkway — at least for a little while.

Like a migrating bird, in a few days he plans to flee the winter winds and return to his native Guatemala. "Go see my parents, my family," he says with glee. "Have a little vacation."

Quintanilla has been living in the United States for 10 years. It's been four years since he's been home. And although he admires the view from the high span where he works, the abrupt silhouettes of water towers, smokestacks and city skyscrapers are nothing like the lakes and jungles of home.

Of the 660 workers on the parkway site, about one-third are from Mexico or other Latin American countries, project manager Wesson estimates. Wages here are far higher than what they could get at home. Quintanilla makes $14 per hour, working 10-hour days. Besides saving for the trip and providing for his two sons, ages 9 and 6, he's been sending money to his parents "every month, whenever I can. 150, 200 dollars — whatever I can."

The labor isn't really too difficult, he says. "We do a lot of different jobs," he says. "They ask me if I can, and I do it. I try to learn, every day." Like the majority of employees there, Quintanilla's never before worked on such a massive project. He's proud to be there, he says, and his sons are impressed.

One day he took them fishing, he says, and all three sat by the James and admired the span. "They wanted to go out there," Quintanilla says with a chuckle. "They say, 'That's so big!'"

He's not afraid of heights. But, he says, "I think it is a dangerous part we do." Quintanilla was acquainted with both men who died, and recalls the tragedies well. "Many people quit," he says. "They don't come back at all."

He stayed. It's now been 14 months since he began working on the parkway. When Quintanilla swipes off his dark glasses and grins, the sun-chiseled lines at the corners of his light brown eyes testify to years working outside.

He imagines doing something else eventually. Exactly what, he's not sure. He says he needs to improve his English first. "I'll try," he says. "I want to go to college, maybe next year."

Quintanilla's eyes light up, thinking about it, and he raises his arms — then looks around at where he stands, on a rough-edged bridge rising toward the sky. He shrugs.

"Everybody dreams. I love this job. My dreams — uff," he sighs.

He finds happiness now playing soccer after work, a passion he's brought with him from Guatemala. He's never too tired to play. "I can be my job and my sport," he says. "That's my life."

t's a man's world out there," says Eva McConaughy, gesturing toward the buzz of construction outside her tiny lace-curtained trailer. The towering bridge is invisible from this small construction compound tucked under the trees off of Route 5, but the activity hums at the same high pitch. Workers are smoothing and paving the connector from the bridge to 295. Men in hard hats continually stomp in and out of the cluster of makeshift offices.

McConaughy's home sits apart from the rest. It's marked by a faded welcome sign painted with hummingbirds and a neat AstroTurf lawn. The warm scent of apple pie and banana muffins wafts out the front door when she opens it, a pleasant antidote to oil fumes and concrete dust.

She's been living here in a three-room trailer on the outskirts of the Pocahontas Parkway project for two-and-a-half years — or is it three? "Time flies when you're having fun," she says with a smile — whether wry or serious, it's hard to tell. "You lose track."

Her husband, Richard, spends 60 to 70 hours per week maintaining construction machinery for English Construction Co. Inc. "I call him a dirty ol' man, because he's a grease monkey," McConaughy chuckles. The chemicals on the road eat away the soles of Richard's thick shoes, she says, and he's been wearing the same pair of battered coveralls for four years. "I've patched work on him as much as I can work," she says.

To stay connected with the world outside, she often brings treats to the workers. "They all say nobody makes fudge like I do," she says with pride. "And my sugar cookies. There's a family recipe that's been passed down for 100 years."

Sometimes McConaughy, 59, will visit her husband on the job, but she refuses to climb up to the top of the bridge. She prefers to retreat to the trailer, leery of standing where the trucks rumble in and out. "I stay on this side and everything, because they always come flying in." She doesn't drive herself — "I had three permits, and that's as far as I went" — and has few visitors. She feels a little awkward about the tears that flow from her right eye, a lingering effect of facial paralysis caused by Bell's Palsy.

It's a lonely life, but right now she's relishing the silence. Her daughter, with her two children, was sharing the trailer until June. "Talk about no privacy," McConaughy says.

Now the place is peaceful. Afternoon sunlight slants in through the windows to warm the tiny living room. It may be cramped, but she wouldn't trade it for anything else. "I just wish I had done it sooner," McConaughy says. "Why would I get a silly house?"

For eight years, she and Richard, who's now 60, have taken the trailer throughout North Carolina on construction jobs. Traveling keeps them from accumulating too much, she says — and she also tries to keep possessions minimal for Richard's sake. "Bein' a big man like he is, I can't have anything sticking out too much."

Living in such close quarters has never led to an argument, McConaughy says. "We've always talked everything over." She's hoping that maybe after the parkway's done, Richard will decide to retire and they can move to South Carolina.

But she's not going to push him. It's not her decision.

"I think with people," she says, "when you're done with the job, you know

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