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.

It calls for two side-by-side draw spans, one for the Beltway's inner loop, one for the outer loop. The outer loop bridge is scheduled to be completed and opened to traffic next year. The inner loop bridge is forecast to be finished in 2008.

Upon completion, the new bridge will alleviate, but not eliminate, one of the epic highway bottlenecks on the East Coast. The madness on the Wilson Bridge is storied. Traffic jams can last all day. One monumental tie-up, caused when a man threatening suicide closed the bridge for five hours, was 20 miles long. And the crotchety draw span can be opened with little warning.

But the poor old bridge, finished in 1961, was never designed to carry the almost 200,000 vehicles that use it daily. It was supposed to be a kind of secondary bridge that would carry the 75,000 cars and trucks then projected to cross via the Beltway, which was not originally supposed to carry Interstate 95. The interstate was supposed to go through the city, not around it on the Beltway. But plans changed, the crosstown interstate was never built, and the Wilson Bridge wound up with more than twice the load it was designed to bear.

Today a trip along the catwalk that is bolted to the underside of the old bridge and leads to the drawbridge operator's tower is a journey of terror. Concrete is crumbling. Steel is rusting. The structure rattles and shudders to the thunder of traffic overhead, while the river surges menacingly 55 feet below.

The new Wilson Bridge is designed to carry 300,000 vehicles a day. And, although the drawbridge will make up only about one-tenth of the overall length, it will be the strongest part.

Technically, the drawbridge is called a bascule, from a French term for "seesaw," and no one on the project knows of a bascule this large anywhere else. The world's most famous bascule bridge probably is London's Tower Bridge over the Thames River. But the Tower Bridge dates from 1894. And, at first, the notion of a new drawbridge over the Potomac, carrying the East Coast's major north-south highway past the nation's capital, sounded antique. Surely Washington deserved something more modern, and monumental.

But nature decreed otherwise. The Potomac, which can be ridiculously shallow, still has a deepwater channel used by modern cargo ships. But the channel where the bridge crosses -- at Virginia's Jones Point and Maryland's Rosalie Island -- is not in the middle of the river. About four miles upstream, the Anacostia River empties into the Potomac and its current has scoured a natural channel in the Potomac right up against the Virginia shoreline.

A suspension bridge, the type with towers and cables, high enough over the channel to allow big ships to pass underneath, would have required a very steep approach on the Virginia side and a structure that would loom over Alexandria. Neither was acceptable, and a new drawbridge became the best solution. But federal, state and local politicians and designers wanted a pretty bridge, a bridge that despite its limitations would have majesty and elegance, unlike the current 44-year-old rattletrap, which has all the beauty of a Tinker Toy.

The final plan, unveiled in 1998, seemed perfect. It envisioned a bridge that was held up by 17 sets of V-shaped piers, at 300-foot intervals, each pier resembling the wings of a bird in flight.

At 70 feet above the river, the new drawbridge would be 15 feet higher than the old one and result in fewer openings -- and traffic backups -- per year. The design was well received. "The arches spring from the river," said an architect on the design selection panel, "as if Neptune's hand . . . is holding this bridge from shore to shore."

But after construction began in 2002, the engineers hired to build the bridge out of concrete and steel found that the design presented challenges.

Here were not the right-angle lines of the old bridge: vertical pilings supporting a horizontal bridge deck. Here, there were no 90-degree angles anywhere. Everything seemed to be curved. One supervisor said that building the piers was like balancing a gigantic beer bottle upside down.

The drawbridge piers were the most problematic. They had to hold the extra weight of the mammoth girders, as well as the engine and machinery that would open and close the bridge. Such strength required the use of concrete segments that were too big to be pre-cast and lifted into place. Instead, they had to be cast in molds constructed on the piers. And this meant dealing with fresh concrete, which had to be trucked to the site, tested for strength and pumped through a pipeline to the piers. To be flexible, the concrete had to have just the right amount of air in it. It also had to be just the right temperature and consistency.

After several weather cancellations and numerous tests and inspections, the concrete work on the first outer loop drawbridge pier was completed on January 24. Now it was ready for the big steel girders.

It has just stopped snowing on Thursday morning, February 3, when a group of unusually equipped men in dirty, orange life jackets clamber aboard four flatbed tractor-trailers at the drawbridge site and begin to examine the cargo, as children might a new toy. They are ironworkers, members of Ugo Del Costello's "raising gang." There is a foreman, two connectors and two hook-on men, who work in concert with a derrick operator. These are Del Costello's "boys." It has taken him a while to find them, and he hovers in the background like a strict father.

The raising gang is an elite group among the ironworkers, who have themselves been celebrated in lore and literature for decades. Even the name -- raising gang -- has a certain Biblical gravity. The raising gang first weds two airborne pieces of steel into a structural form in an act of creation requiring the eye of a sculptor, the strength of a blacksmith and the agility of a cat. Not everyone can do it. You can get hurt, or killed, in any number of ways -- a lot to ask for $25 an hour with the only training being on-the-job experience.

The foreman is Gary McDonald, 47, a strapping Coloradan who is a longtime colleague of Del Costello's. He's been an ironworker for 27 years, is the son of an ironworker and has a brother in the business. He and Del Costello have worked together on bridges in North Carolina and West Virginia, and have done a maintenance stint on the "GWB," New York's George Washington Bridge. Del Costello asked him to come to the Wilson project.

McDonald doesn't suffer fools gladly. Recently, he threatened to slug an engineer from another company, and when the engineer complained about his conduct, Del Costello replied: "Well, welcome to the ironworkers."

Both men are boomers, seasoned veterans who work the biggest projects and will go anywhere to do so. Boomer traditions are deep, dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries and the boomtowns where the jobs were. In the old days, it was a two-fisted way of life, one of women and whiskey and glowing rivets and the building of America. But no one tosses hot rivets around anymore: It is dangerous and labor-intensive, and nuts and bolts work better. Plus, they are easier to fix if there is a mistake.

The gang's lead hook-on man is Rob Butry, 41, of Brookeville, Md., whose dark hair and goatee are speckled with gray. He is a wry character with a raunchy sense of humor, and he is dedicated to the job. "Good ground man," Del Costello says of him, adept at properly hooking the steel girder to the derrick cable before liftoff.

The second hook-on man is Stanley Davie, 28, another son of an ironworker, from Springfield. A steady, methodical hand, he has been on and off the Wilson job for a while, having quit once over disputes with a foreman. Del Costello has noticed that while Davie sometimes looks as if he is working slowly, he is focused and never wastes a movement. This is his first bridge over water.

The raising gang's lead connector is Kevin Ritchey, 34, a bearded, tattooed ironworker whose nickname, "Hollywood," is written in faded marker on the back of his life vest. An old-timer gave him the name years ago. "Son," Ritchey recalls the old man telling him. "One of these days you'll be a star." In a business with a tradition of colorful nicknames, the name stuck.

Author Gay Talese, in his 1964 book about ironworkers building the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City, recorded such nicknames as "Hard Nose Murphy," "Ice Water Charley" and "Riphorn Red." The best-known nickname on the bascule bridge is Del Costello's. "Hokey" came from a dapper-looking cartoon wolf who wore a tie and a hat in a 1960s TV show. Del Costello has no recollection of how he got the name, but he's had it since grade school.

It was Hokey Del Costello who directed the work on Vancouver's landmark Lions Gate Bridge over Burrard Inlet in 2001. There, for the first time ever, a suspension bridge deck was replaced piece by piece at night and reopened each morning for traffic.

It was Hokey who, before and after being attacked in Portugal, supervised much of the upgrade of the huge 25th of April Bridge over the Tagus River in Lisbon in 1997-98. The towers on the massive suspension bridge were built higher and new cables were installed, all without traffic interruption.

And it was Hokey who, in 1992, supervised the removal of a vertical lift bridge in Alabama and its relocation hundreds of miles away to a site over the Mississippi River at Hannibal, Mo.

Last November, he telephoned Ritchey, who lives in St. Mary's County, where he has a wife and five children, and raises longhorn steers. "I'm Hokey Del Costello from American Bridge," Ritchey recalls Del Costello saying. "I hear you hang iron." Ritchey never had worked on a bridge over water before, but Del Costello heard he was good man.

The other connector is Gary Anderson, whose nickname is "Young'un," because he is only 25. Originally from Iron Mountain, Mich., and a former middle linebacker in college, he turned to ironwork in search of excitement. This is his first over-water bridge, too.

Jeff Hobson, 30, from High Point, N.C., is the derrick operator and has a drawl as thick as packing grease. He, too, is new, and Del Costello likes him because he's safety-conscious. There was a hair-raising incident earlier in the job, in which a derrick dropped a 12-ton boom from 100 feet up, and Hokey does not want another.

Each man in the gang carries 40 pounds of equipment, which hangs from his work belt and clanks when he walks. The tools include a sledgehammer, or "beater," and a set of metal spikes called "pins." When two pieces of steel are being connected, the pins are hammered into the first few bolt holes to align all the others. It's like shoemaking, only not with leather. And the bigger the hammer -- they can weigh as much as 12 pounds -- the fewer times you have to swing it.

Most of the gang's work is done high in the air, and in this case almost 100 feet over the Potomac. Hence the life vests. The connectors often are required to stay tethered to some solid structure with safety wires to keep them from falling, or "going in the hole," as the men call it.

The key to survival is escape. "A good ironworker always has got his way out," says Ritchey. "You've always got that in the back of your mind: 'Hey, if all hell breaks loose how am I getting out of here?'" Last fall a tethered worker was killed when a section of a bridge support under construction in North Dakota collapsed and pulled him under water. And, in February 2004, four ironworkers were killed when a derrick collapsed on a bridge over the Maumee River in Toledo, Ohio.

"You fall asleep," Ritchey tells himself, "you stay asleep."

The cargo he and the others are so eagerly examining this morning has just been shipped from a plant outside Pittsburgh, and is made up of assemblies of gray steel that look like pieces of a mammoth Erector Set. These are the parts of one of the drawbridge's trunnion towers. They are 77-ton structures that will be bolted atop the concrete bridge piers to support the trunnions, or axles, of the massive bascule girders when they are shipped weeks from now.

But of more immediate importance on this overcast, muddy day, they are among the first big pieces of permanent steel to arrive for the bascule.

It's after noon when the gang finishes unchaining the towers from the truck beds. They sheath their tools, hop down and shuffle to the dim interior of a banged-up steel shipping container on the main work barge. "Ironworkers only," it says in marker on the inside of the door. Outside, on a blue barrel that bears a red Flammable Liquid sticker, someone has written: "Rob's Used Diapers."

This is the gang's dining room. It has a plywood floor, an overhead fluorescent light and metal grating over the windows. The men sit on wooden benches facing one another across a scarred, oblong, plastic table. Usually there are beaters, pins and steel cables strewn around, and sometimes a girlie magazine. They sit in the same spots every day, with Ritchey often at the end of the table in a white plastic lawn chair with a broken armrest. Most of the time, they don't talk about the job. But sometimes they do.

"It's like living life on the edge all the time," says Ritchey, who is wearing a red, white and blue bandana on his head.

There is a rush from constantly working around extreme danger. And there's pride in the notion that you can function in the presence of gigantic objects that can kill you in an instant but won't if you're good, and lucky. And if you have a good crew.

"Everything's based on trust," Ritchey says.

"You gotta put your life in the other guy's hands," Anderson says.

But the job is a blast, Ritchey says. "I wouldn't do anything else."

"I wouldn't do anything else" either, Anderson says.

"I would," jokes Butry. "I might try being a porno star."

He suggests a ribald stage name.

There are guffaws.

The talk inevitably comes around to safety, and to their dislike of being "tied off" with tethers. It's like being on a leash, Butry says.

Ritchey proclaims that he would rather work all day untethered.

"You're going to get in trouble," Butry warns him.

"It's the truth," Ritchey says "You want the truth? That's the truth."

One by one, they finish eating, smoke a quick Newport or Marlboro, pack up their gear and excuse themselves. They put on their hard hats and life vests and quickly file out the door. They have iron to hang. "It's in your blood," Ritchey says. "It's one thing that you get in you, and you can't get out."

It is Monday, February 7, and the raising gang is preparing to set the trunnion towers atop the first drawbridge pier. The 30-foot tall, trellis-like assembly is designed to hold the shafts of the drawbridge girders, much like the playground frame that holds the axle of a seesaw.

But the task is complicated. The assembly has to be virtually perfect to ensure that the girders fit the rest of the bridge precisely. A miscue or miscalculation would be ruinous down the road. You can't have a crooked drawbridge.

The north side of the trunnion assembly goes up without a major hitch. But, on Tuesday, the men find problems on the south side.

The south section is lifted in two 12-ton columns. The first is set at about 8:15 with no trouble. At about 8:40, the hook-on men attach the derrick cables to the second column. Then the derrick, itself a gigantic structure resting on two side-by-side barges, begins to "fly" the column to the top of the pier.

There McDonald, Ritchey and Anderson wait while Del Costello comes and goes. This isn't a huge lift, and the men can handle it themselves, which is okay with them. Hokey has a reputation as a taskmaster, "a hard man, but a fair man," he calls himself. He makes the others a bit nervous.

As the connectors wait, and the looming assembly slowly rises into the blue sky, everything suddenly stops. A twist has developed in one of the derrick cables.

It's "all spun up," a clearly frustrated Butry announces over the radio. The column can't be raised with a twisted cable.

Hobson, the derrick operator, has to lower it back to the barge so the problem can be corrected.

It is, and the lift resumes. As the steel is eased into the 10-foot space between the first column and the wall, Anderson, McDonald and Ritchey scramble to guide it. Ritchey and Anderson climb the structure, while McDonald perches atop the wall pushing the gray steel as if it were an elephant. A lurch in any direction could mean disaster for any of them. But they land it expertly, aligning the bolt holes perfectly, and begin to install and tighten nuts with hammers and wrenches. There is another problem, though.

Del Costello radios that he wants the first column moved to allow the placement of crosspieces. The raising gang guys believed they could install the crosspieces without relocating the column. Hokey doesn't agree.

McDonald throws a piece of scrap wood in disgust. Ritchey fumes: "See what happens when Hokey comes around." He hates setting a piece twice. It's bad luck, and it ups the odds of an accident. Hokey hates doing things twice, too. "If they had done it my way the first time," he says later, "it wouldn't have been done twice."

There are always multiple opinions about how something should be done, Matthew English, a young project engineer, says quietly as he looks on. But "there can be only one alpha male, and that's Hokey."

Ugo Del Costello was about 10 when he started building things. His father, also Ugo, was moving his family from Baltimore to the suburbs in the early 1960s. They were not going far -- about a block over the line into Baltimore County's Rosedale section.

Del Costello, one of five children, helped his father mix the concrete and carry the bricks as their new ranch house took shape. His father, a truck driver who was born in Italy, could do anything, and, Del Costello says, he taught his son what he knew.

After high school, Del Costello started working in a steel-fabricating shop. He liked handling steel but couldn't picture himself at the same place for 30 years. He would see buildings under construction on his way to work and think that looked interesting. He joined the local ironworkers union and started getting good jobs.

He hung iron at a steel mill, at a local power plant, and on Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge. Soon, he was a raising gang foreman.

Meanwhile, he had become fascinated with bridge- building, and with suspension bridges especially. He read everything he could find about them, and decided he wanted to build one someday. But he knew that might never happen in Baltimore. In the early 1980s, American Bridge Co. came to town to help build the elevated approaches to the Fort McHenry Tunnel. Here was a company that built bridges around the world. Del Costello signed on.

By now, he was married and had three children, and was discovering that the life of a boomer was not necessarily good for a family. Over time, the work, the travel and other things took a toll, and his marriage foundered. There would be a second marriage, and a third, which is kind of standard for bridge builders.

Always, his current wife, Sherry, says, the job comes first. Birthdays, anniversaries, doctors' appointments: All are secondary. She and Ugo have been married 10 years, and she says she knows her place in her husband's hierarchy. The job is number one. His children come second. Hunting season is third. And she is fourth. "That's just the way it is," she says.

Thus focused, Del Costello quickly worked his way up. He became a foreman, then a general foreman, then a walking boss, then a superintendent. He became known for his uncanny ability to look at plans and visualize, in three dimensions, how a structure could, or could not, be assembled. He could foresee problems, which was a priceless asset.

He has "a great mechanical mind," says Ron Crockett, an American Bridge vice president who has worked on three bridges with Del Costello. "He could easily have been an engineer, but he didn't have the opportunity for that."

It was grueling work that took him all over the country. The hours were long -- 4 a.m. to 8 p.m., six or seven days a week. And Del Costello was completely obsessed with it. Sometimes it was overwhelming.

In the early 1990s, he was coming off a difficult bridge project in New Jersey, as well as his second divorce, and he had to take a break. "Just looking to get away and hide," he recalls. He went to a friend's cabin in the wilderness of northern Colorado to fish and relax. Sherry, six years Ugo's junior, was then running a gift shop in a Colorado restaurant where he often came to dine.

She chuckles now, but says he struck her then as a "mellow, low-key individual." She would learn otherwise. She asked him what he did. "I build bridges," she remembers him saying. She had no idea what that really meant.

Time passed, and they had gotten to know each other well when his job came calling. Off he went to work on a project in North Carolina. But he phoned and wrote to her regularly, and was soon asking her to come join him. She said yes.

In 1995, they were living together in Coral Gables, Fla., where he was working on the MacArthur Causeway over Biscayne Bay in Miami, when they decided to get married. It was "a typical Ugo Del Costello-type affair," she says. He left work, dashed home, showered, and they hurried to a local justice of the peace. Then they went out for dinner and drove home, and he got up the next morning at 4 and went back to work. There still hasn't been a honeymoon, and they both still get their anniversary mixed up. It's March 2.

But by then, she knew the story, and "he knew I could take the heat." Bridge-building was a lifestyle. "Everything revolves around the bridges," she says. ". . . And I don't mean that negatively or bitterly . . . He's a pain in my rear end, but I love him dearly."

She had a special two-piece wedding band made for him. It was two rings bound together so that they rotate independently. "That's pretty much our lives," he says. "No matter which way each one of us goes, it's still together." He doesn't wear the ring to work.

Sherry also saw that her husband was among a dying breed. There were few grand bridges left to build in the United States, and fewer and fewer devoted bridgemen like Hokey.

Overseas, though, designers were still planning fabulous new bridges, and some of the older ones needed fixing -- good news for boomers endlessly yearning for the next bridge. "Graceful in the air," Gay Talese wrote of his bridgemen 40 years ago. "Restless on the ground."

Shortly after their wedding, Ugo and Sherry began planning for the project that would take them to Lisbon and the famous 25th of April Bridge. American boomers had helped build the bridge in the 1960s, and at least one was killed on that project. Now American Bridge was going to help strengthen and expand the structure. It was an exciting opportunity that promised to be quite an adventure. The couple moved to Pittsburgh, near company headquarters, to prepare, and then were off to Lisbon in May 1997.

By December 1, the job was going well, and they had settled into an apartment. At about 7 that evening, Sherry was making dinner and was on the phone with the wife of another worker. Both husbands were still on the job. "Is yours home yet?" she recalls asking her friend. Hers wasn't, either. They laughed, and said goodbye.

Seconds later, Sherry's phone rang again. It was Ron Crockett, American Bridge's executive manager on the Lisbon project. She knew instantly that a big shot would be calling at that hour only with bad news.

There had been an accident, he told her. She feared the worst, the thing that every bridgeman's wife fears every day: "I thought he had gone off the iron." That would have meant he was dead. He wasn't dead, at least not yet, and he had not gone into the river.

Del Costello had been driving in Lisbon with a company translator named Miguel Lo. They had come to an intersection and had nearly gotten into a fender bender with another car that happened to be filled with local thugs. Both cars emptied, and a street fight ensued. Lo, who is an accountant on the Wilson Bridge project, was pounded around the right eye but managed to keep his feet. One of the thugs head-butted Del Costello, who went down and was repeatedly kicked in the face and pummeled with clubs by the attackers. But he and Lo had done some damage, and two of the attackers later showed up at the hospital to get first aid.

Del Costello recalls little of the incident. "Maybe if I'd have just stayed in the car," he says. "But I was never like that."

Lo radioed the bridge site for help. When Sherry reached the local trauma center, she found her husband on a gurney in a neck brace. His eyes were swollen shut. His nostrils were packed with dried blood. His face and forehead were covered with red contusions that seemed to be in the shape of footprints. He looked dead, she recalls.

Many of the other American engineers on the project had raced to the scene and followed the ambulance to the trauma center. They parted to let Sherry through.

"Baby, I'm here," she recalls saying as she leaned over him.

He started shaking.

"What can I do?" she said.

"I'm cold," he replied.

"He's freezing," she told the men. "Get your coats off."

They did, and covered him.

After he was stabilized in the trauma center, Del Costello was moved to a hospital, where Lo got him a room with a window that overlooked the bridge construction site. Del Costello asked for a two-way radio, so he could listen to what was happening and call in if he wanted. He did so regularly.

When he got out of the hospital in Lisbon, he and Sherry flew to Pittsburgh, where he went to see specialists. He had lost the hearing in his left ear and, as a result, had lost much of his sense of balance.

He was unsteady in the shower and had to lean against a wall to put his socks on. There was concern that he might never be able to "walk iron" again. "I was staggering around on everything," he says, "and that's not good to do when you're working 700 feet up in the air . . . You're an ironworker and you got bad equilibrium, it's time to get out of the business."

Sherry also believes that the attack changed him. His powerful sense of who he is was injured. "He takes his self-worth from his job," she says, "and they almost took that away from him." He seemed more conscious of his mortality, less sure of his indestructibility, she says.

But he was determined to go back to the Lisbon bridge, and, gradually, he began to recover his equilibrium. About a month after the attack, they were back in Portugal, and, to the amazement of colleagues, he was back on the job the first week of January.

He finished that bridge. He and Sherry returned to the States, and he went to work on a bridge in Wheeling, W.Va. Later, they moved on to the Lions Gate project in Vancouver. That job was tedious, and exhausting, and his former stamina was not there. He was worn out when it was over.

The couple moved back to Maryland, to Edgewood, northeast of Baltimore, near his three grown children and five grandchildren. He went into semi-retirement, working from home and finally getting a chance to rest. For once, he was not looking for the next bridge.

But soon the itch crept back. "Rambling fever," Talese said the old-timers called it.

There was this fancy bridge in the works down in Washington. And it was no redo. It was a brand-new, from the water up, bridge. It was not a suspension bridge, but you couldn't have everything.

It would be a rare eight-leaf drawbridge to accommodate the width of the Capital Beltway. Each loop would have four underpinning leaves, and the whole thing would look like the four fingers of two hands touching at the tips.

"Wow," he remembers thinking, "this is another one for the record books." Maybe he would tackle just one more. He helped American Bridge bid on the job, and when the company got the nod to do the steelwork on the bascule, he was appointed the general superintendent.

It was time to uproot again. He and Sherry bought a house in her home town of Robinson, in southeastern Illinois, where she could be close to her elderly mother. He got an apartment in Alexandria, where he would live on frozen dinners. They would travel back and forth. She would come to visit regularly.

He vows that this will be his last bridge. He will be 59 when the job is done. Beneath his work jacket, he looks thin. He has arthritis in his elbows, wrists and knees, and a constant ringing in his ears from the Lisbon attack. "I'm wore out," he says.

It will be hard to walk away, of course. His company has just landed a big piece of the new Chacao Channel suspension bridge in Chile. It will be a three-tower giant, and is set to begin in three years. He has never built a suspension bridge from the start. But he plans to be really retired by then. Finally, he is telling people, he is going to "pull the pin."

It is a telling analogy, and nobody believes him -- not even Sherry. When asked if she thinks this is his last bridge, she laughs.

"Yes," she says, and then quickly adds:

"No."

The sun has just come up over the Maryland shore of the Potomac on Monday, March 21, and in the distance the Capitol dome is a small mound of white in the morning haze. At the construction site, an osprey chirps overhead, and a few ragged clouds blow downstream. At 6:58 a.m., a red tugboat backs into the river, dragging a group of barges that are lashed to its bow. Straddling the barges are a derrick and a gigantic steel girder with the number "5" chalked on its side.

Everything seems ideal for the installation of the first big girder, "G-5." Except for the wind. It is breezy and blowing from the northwest, an unfavorable direction, because the 20-foot-tall girder would catch it almost broadside during the lift.

Del Costello knows how treacherous the wind can be. But that is only one thing that can go wrong. Last fall, there was a very scary mishap when one of the derricks was in the process of assembling another, lifting a boom that would become the arm of the second derrick. The 12-ton boom had been raised, and three ironworkers were about to attach it. Del Costello was standing on a barge right underneath signaling, when suddenly the boom dropped onto the barge. "I seen it coming," he recounts. "Took off running. It's all you can do."

There was some damage, but nobody was hurt. Still, it "turns your stomach," Del Costello says. A foreman who was there that day remembers: "Hokey's face was blood-[expletive] red. He was lucky that son of a bitch didn't go point first through that barge. We were all lucky that day."

Del Costello wants no "hiccups" of that kind this morning. Because this is the first bascule girder, he plans to run the operation himself. The raising gang had seemed tentative the previous Friday when the 170-ton girder was lifted and staged on the work barge. But Del Costello likes them worried. This isn't some office building they are erecting. That is "tier" construction, he scoffs: same thing floor after floor. It is like working in a pie factory.

This is a bridge that will stand for the ages over one of the nation's great rivers. After this, he says, his people will be more than just ironworkers. They, too, will be bridgemen.

At about 7:30 a.m., he strides out on top of the bridge pier in his brown hard hat, short, tan work jacket, white gauntlets and mirror sunglasses. He is unencumbered by the equipment the other men wear, and might be Patton, or Rommel, or Caesar. He is in command but also has the weight of responsibility. The raising gang will be executing his strategy, and trusting with their lives that it is sound and safe. He owes them his best. "You plan your work," his mantra goes, "and work your plan."

Down below, the girder waits, straddling two barges, edge up, with lateral shafts sticking out each side. It is so heavy that it has to be raised by a derrick and a special crane attached to the top of the pier.

It will then be maneuvered until the shafts come to rest in twin saddles, called bearings, on top of the trunnion tower assembly. After a matching girder has been installed opposite it, the two will frame one leaf in the drawbridge.

At 7:45 a.m., the girder begins to rise slowly off the barges. Its movement is almost imperceptible at first. It takes 15 minutes to move less than halfway to the top. But as it does, it begins to catch the wind. The higher it rises, the more exposed it is. The average wind speed this day is 11 mph, close enough to Del Costello's acceptance level, but the gusts turn out to be twice that. Now, hanging out over the river like a 170-ton steel kite, the girder begins to sway slightly in the breeze.

Kevin Ritchey of the raising gang watches in dismay. "Dear Lord," he prays. "Please let that wind stop. We don't need this." His prayer is quickly answered. The wind dies down, the swaying stops, and the girder continues its ascent.

But suddenly, down in the cabin of the derrick, Jeff Hobson hears a thump from up in the superstructure. He isn't sure what it is, but he immediately radios to halt the lift. Any worker on the crew can stop the operation in an emergency, and Hobson has never lifted anything this big before. "You hear something like that," he says later, "you don't keep going." Not with 170 tons hanging in the air.

Now, as the minutes tick by and the girder dangles, still exposed to the wind, a small figure can be seen starting to climb an access ladder at the bottom of the derrick. It is McDonald, the raising gang foreman. "When something like that happens," Del Costello says later, "you've got to find out what it was."

Up McDonald climbs, higher and higher. Soon Stanley Davie, one of the hook-on men, follows. They look like ants slowly making their way along the legs and supports of the derrick. Finally, about 130 feet up, they reach the bull wheel, a large circular device that looks like a hula hoop and guides the derrick cable so the boom can swing from side to side. They look around and find nothing amiss. The cable probably caught briefly on a clamp in the bull wheel and then thumped when it slipped free, Del Costello says later.

By 9:45 a.m., the girder has been maneuvered so that the shafts are just above the bearings. The shafts are coated in a blood-colored lubricant and covered with sheets of opaque plastic. As the derrick lowers the girder, Del Costello is down on one knee with a radio microphone in one hand, talking to Hobson. He begins to tear the plastic sheeting off the shafts as the distance narrows.

At 10:06 a.m., the shafts come to rest in the bearings, and the immense weight of the girder squeezes the lubricant from the joint.

A small crowd of workers, engineers and inspectors has gathered on top of the pier to watch and take pictures. An inspector smokes a cigar. "It's up," says an engineer, and with no "hiccups." Others walk over to examine the girder and touch the steel.

It is an important moment. All the laptop calculations, and last-minute adjustments, and planning, and worrying, and work, and long hours, and coordination have come together in the mating of two pieces of steel that will stay joined for generations.

But there is no celebration. A few hundred feet away, morning traffic clatters over the old bridge. Two workers with trowels begin to scoop the excess lubricant off the steel and into plastic buckets.

Del Costello is relieved. It was a tight fit, but it worked, and no one got hurt. There are more girders to place, but he plans to step back. The gang knows how to do it now.

"These boys are going to be good," he says. "They're going to follow in my footsteps." He gets on the radio and tells all hands: "Good job."

On a recent Thursday night, Del Costello pulls his black Ford pickup into the back parking lot of Southside 815 restaurant in Alexandria. Wearing jeans, a short-sleeved shirt and a baseball cap, he takes a seat in the bar area at a small table squeezed between the jukebox and a TV.

There Gary McDonald, another ironworker foreman, Mike Wade, and a bridge surveyor, Anthony Guzzi, are already into the initial rounds of beer, burgers and chicken wings.

Del Costello was supposed to meet Sherry this night. She planned to drive in from Illinois for a visit but has been delayed a day, so he has some unexpected spare time. His men put in an especially good day's work, and he has promised to buy a few beers.

As round after round crowds the table, and the ashtray fills, the men talk about hunting and fishing exploits. They arm wrestle. They get a little loud. They make cracks about women in the bar. "What's the difference between a fox and dog?" Del Costello jokes. "Six of these," he says, pointing to a beer bottle. And they rib each other mercilessly. But mostly, while the oblivious after-work bar crowd around them chats and watches TV, the raucous guys in the corner talk about bridges.

McDonald claims that he once worked in a temperature of 23-below, on the GWB.

Impossible, the others say. It never gets that cold in New York.

"That time it was," McDonald says. "Wind whipping off the Hudson River. Two hundred feet above the water." Middle of winter. "It was 23-below."

The GWB, Del Costello says. "Remember all the jumpers on that bridge?" It was awful. He actually saved a would-be suicide there one day. He came upon a cop who had grabbed a jumper by the arms. But the cop was holding the guy through a metal grating and couldn't pull him through. "He said he couldn't hold him much longer."

"I climb over the railing," Del Costello says, determined that the guy would not take him down, too. "I grab the guy by the shirt. I feel the shirt coming off. I tell the cop to grab his arms again. I get him by the belt." Del Costello hauled him to safety, and later heard the cop got a medal.

Typical ironworker's luck.

The talk turns to dumb bridge engineers who think they know everything just because they went to college. "They ought to send these guys right to the field for six months, as soon as they get out of school," Wade says. They are forever designing stuff that looks great on paper but can't be executed in the field.

Then someone asks about the new suspension bridge that's planned for the two-mile wide Strait of Messina in Italy.

"Hunh?" Del Costello says, cocking his head to hear.

The Messina bridge!

"Hunh?" he says. "Oh yeah."

He knows all about it. It's going to be a massive $5.5 billion project, and the biggest suspension bridge in the world. It will be considerably larger than the current suspension king, the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge in Japan, and will dwarf the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

"The towers are 1,200 feet," Del Costello says, marveling at the structures from which the Messina bridge cables will hang. Almost twice the height of the Verrazano towers. It will be about the height of the Empire State Building. The span will be 11,000 feet. "The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is 4,000 feet," he says. The Messina bridge will have 183,000 tons of cable, and each cable will be four feet across.

Del Costello becomes quiet and stares across the bar.

"That's going to be a hell of a bridge," he says.

But it's years down the road.

And he, Hokey Del Costello, who has never built a suspension bridge from the start, will surely be relaxing with the wife some place. They haven't decided where they will retire. But they will. They'll agree on a place, and he'll hunt and fish, and now and then tell stories in bars, and he will be finished with this bridge-building business for good. Really. He will.

Michael E. Ruane is a reporter for The Post's Metro section. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.