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A Master of the Machines That Give Tourists a Lift

Fabrice Fevai uses the oversize wrenches behind him to maintain the system of pistons and pulleys that lift and lower the old elevators, which carry 92 passengers.
Fabrice Fevai uses the oversize wrenches behind him to maintain the system of pistons and pulleys that lift and lower the old elevators, which carry 92 passengers. (By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 17, 2007

PARIS

Deep beneath the Eiffel Tower, Fabrice Fevai is dodging fat water drops, skirting slick pools on the concrete floor and ducking giant wheels and pistons.

"Down here there's always water dripping, we always have leaks," he says.

Splat. His shoulder takes a direct hit.

It's 3:15 in the afternoon, throngs of tourists are lined up topside, one elevator is down for repairs and Fevai is the man in charge of keeping the two others going. Each one lugs thousands of tourists up and down one of the world's most recognized landmarks every day: a hundred trips up and down the cable, 92 gawking tourists each load, countless cameras clicking to preserve priceless vacation memories.

Fevai, 47 and soft-spoken, is an engineer who got his training running ski lifts at some of France's premier resorts. He now walks his beat underneath 7,300 tons of iron spider-webbing. His domain is the subterranean maze of hydraulic pistons and pulleys, more than a century old, that hoist the elevators to the bird's-eye view of Paris atop the tower. His title is chef du service -- head of services -- for the Society for the Operation of the Eiffel Tower.

When the massive, water-fed hydraulic elevators were installed in Gustave Eiffel's creation for the 1889 world's fair, the cable cars were at the cutting edge of technology, among the largest hydraulic lifts in the world. Today these antiques serve one of France's most popular monuments, with more than 6.7 million visitors last year.

The pistons are greased with pig or ox fat mixed with hemp fiber. The insides of the taps on the water pumps are lined with leather saturated in ox-hoof oil.

"The original machinery needs the original grease -- it won't work with modern oils," Fevai says, leaning over to inspect the thick, translucent globs of pig fat oozing down the sides of a pipe casing. "It's been like this for over 100 years."

Today, in an age of refined oil lubricants, the grease is hard to find, Fevai says. Fortunately, a company in northern France still produces the obsolete animal fat concoctions. Fevai orders it in 13-gallon jerrycans.

A nearby wall is lined with wrenches the size of a large man's thigh, tools perfect for the hands of Paul Bunyan. They're used to tighten century-old bolts with rusting heads the size of cauliflowers.

Just around the corner is the computer room, with blinking screens, banks of computers, and rows of buttons and switches. "It's a job of contrasts," Fevai says. "In here, I have to handle tiny screwdrivers. Out there it's the huge tools from another era."


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