For Memorial Crew, It's More Than Just a Job
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2004; Page A01
Construction workers have had the National World War II Memorial to themselves for more than 21/2 years, laboring behind construction fences to transform a mostly grassy expanse of the Mall into what promises to become one of Washington's most-visited sites.
Next week, possibly as early as Monday, they'll share their work with the public. The construction fences are coming down around the site between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and visitors will be free to explore 7.4 acres that make up one of the largest memorials in a city that's full of them.
Almost all of the workers will move on to other jobs, but many say they'll be taking some vivid memories with them when they go. Some say they remember seeing an airplane flying toward the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Many anxiously watched floodwaters rise within inches of a ruinous setback during Hurricane Isabel. They've labored through two unusually harsh winters. They've mourned the death of their lead construction supervisor. A couple of them fell in love with each other and plan to marry. Almost all of them have watched tourists poke their heads through gaps in the construction fence and ask, What are you building in there?
Answering that question now, a lot of them say they have built much more than a memorial.
When it's a day-in-day-out job, there is a tendency to take a narrow view of a project, focusing on the task at hand instead of the collective results that will emerge. But construction supervisors have emphasized to the workers on this project that it adds up to more than the laborious challenge of arranging huge pieces of stone into an artful memorial. With few exceptions, the message seems to have connected. Most at the construction site, from the bottom of the pay scale to the top, seem to agree with laborer Jimmy Wilson when he explains, "This one's different -- it's special."
"I know I'll never do anything like this again," said William B. "Barry" Owenby, project executive. "My dad is a veteran of World War II, and he calls me every week and asks, 'How's my memorial doing?' It's the same for a lot of people working on this project. You can just tell by the looks on their faces that this is not just another construction job."
About 500 people have been involved in constructing the memorial since site preparation work began Aug. 27, 2001. The work is coming to a head this week. Deadline pressure is at its height as the goal of a Monday opening looms: Workers this week are pouring concrete, wiring lights, digging irrigation ditches, paving roads, brushing marble, planting trees, tweaking fountains.
"Trying to beg people to do their jobs is what I usually end up doing a lot of times on projects," said Kenneth J. Terry, project manager for Tompkins Builders Inc., the company partnering with contractor Grunley-Walsh to supervise the project. "But not on this one."
Terry believes that's because so many people, even though they might be generations removed from the war, claim a connection. Both of his grandfathers served overseas during the war. His maternal grandfather died a month ago, but not before Terry took him on an emotional tour of the site.
"It's amazing how many people have family members who were in the war," he said. "There are more like that than not, actually."
Since the project started, World War II veterans have been dying at a rate of about 1,100 a day, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission. That fact has added yet another sense of urgency to project's deadline, and it's an urgency that the personal connections underscore. Logan Craig, who has been overseeing construction of the site's utilities since fall 2001, said his father-in-law, a veteran of the war, got a tour just before he died last year.
But even if the workers and supervisors feel the time crunch, some things are beyond their control.
"The weather has been the worst thing here," Craig said, noting the record-setting precipitation last year. "We're sitting on a tidal basin, so if you dig a foot into the ground, you hit water already. So any amount of rain doesn't help."
Some of the workers worried that last year's Hurricane Isabel would deal their spring 2004 deadline a fatal blow. Water crept up to the sandbags that encircled the site, coming six to eight inches from flooding the work zone, said Pat Bizzell, who is overseeing electrical work at the site. That wouldn't have posed a threat to the memorial's stone or its foundation, but Bizzell's electrical systems were in jeopardy, he said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company