Clear and Present Danger

By Michael E. Ruane
Sunday, June 12, 2005

Ugo Del Costello enters his office with the swagger of a field marshal, takes off his hard hat, and removes his gloves and grimy work jacket. He sits down at his desk, and, as he glares over the top of his glasses, his eyes are bleary from lack of sleep.

He is 56, a truck driver's son from Baltimore, with the face of a boxer, a villainous-looking mustache and a sign by his door that reads: "Do Not Start With Me, You Will Not Win." He has been an ironworker all his life, a renowned fixer and builder of bridges, and he swears to God this is the last one.

It is 6:30 p.m. on a Friday in mid-March, and most of the crews working on the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River have gone for the day. But Del Costello is in charge of steel construction on the most complex part of the sprawling project, the new drawbridge, and he cannot go home at 6:30.

Outside the prefabricated building that houses his office, near Alexandria's Jones Point Park, a huge rust-colored barge has just been pushed up the Potomac from a factory in Florida. Stored on the barge, edges up, like the blades of knives, are four gigantic girders, each one made of super-strength steel, and each one 124 feet long, 20 feet high and about 170 tons.

Del Costello, a superintendent with the venerable American Bridge Co., has been planning for these girders for months. They are the biggest to be erected on the bridge. They are so big -- each one heavier than an airliner -- that few of the other ironworkers on the job have handled anything like them. But Del Costello is an old-timer, "a boomer," as rusty ironworkers have called themselves for a hundred years. He has seen steel like this many times.

Eight years ago, a job on a towering suspension bridge in Lisbon required the lifting of 54 steel girders of 100 tons each. He has a photo of that bridge on the wall. It wasn't the steel that was the problem there. It was the thugs who waylaid him at a traffic intersection. Left for dead, he was in the hospital for many days, and his wife says he hasn't been the same since. But he was back to work in a month. And now, three bridges later, he is sliding a page of plans across his desk, and explaining how he will move the barge with tugboats, then, using a floating derrick and a special crane, lift the first girder 100 feet high and maneuver it into place.

These four, and 12 others, will eventually bracket the eight leaves that underpin the deck of the drawbridge, and will work in tandem to raise and lower the bridge during openings.

But the lift will be dicey. Del Costello is worried about the wind. Anything over 10 mph, out of the north or south, and he's scrubbing it. Lateral stress on the derrick could be disastrous. Six years ago high wind claimed three ironworkers on a baseball stadium job in Milwaukee, and last fall wind banged a crane askew on the Potomac. "If I [screw] up," he says, "I could kill somebody. I made it all these years without doing that. I ain't doing it on this one."

Framed on the wall behind him is a kind of ironworkers creed. "Read that," he says. "I wrote that." Recited aloud, it is a blue-collar ode to skill, hard work and danger. "Danger is my constant companion, and instant death lurks around every corner," it says in part. "I am an ironworker. I need not grovel . . . to king nor tycoon."

Del Costello listens but does not turn around. He is a proud man who has given everything to his work. When the entire reading is done, he is sitting at his desk in silence with tears rolling down his face.

Seventeen years in the making -- the original studies date to 1988 -- the new Wilson Bridge is currently one of the biggest construction projects in the United States. Work began in the fall of 2000, with dredging in the river, and is not scheduled for overall completion until 2011. The project includes not only a new mile-long bridge and the demolition of the old one, but a vast amount of work on highway approaches and nearby interchanges on both sides of the river. The total cost is $2.43 billion.

The project is so gigantic that it has been broken into 32 work contracts, only five of which involve the actual construction of the bridge. And of those, the $186 million drawbridge contract is the most critical.

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