The hot asphalt sizzled under the touch of the roller king.
It steamed and bubbled as the king, crowned in a gray hard hat, steered the wet cylinders of his Ingersoll-Rand DD110 across the black grit, sculpting and smoothing.
Enthroned atop the steamroller he calls "Patsy," the perspiring king -- Marion Hilliard, 51, of Arlington -- had been on duty for 13 hours by yesterday morning, molding new lanes for a Capital Beltway approach to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
A single, constricted line of traffic filed by as he worked. Inspectors waited. The asphalt hissed. But the king, who has been a "roller man" for nine years and takes good care of Patsy, was serene. "It's an art," he said. "You can't put [just] anybody on a roller . . . and do the things that I can do."
The detours and lane closures that accompanied the roadwork did not produce the regionwide traffic meltdown yesterday that project managers had feared. Meanwhile, the small army of seasoned highway workers labored round-the-clock in tropical weather in hopes of completing the paving today.
By yesterday morning, the workers had put down 400 tons of a projected 800 tons of asphalt and were on track, weather and other glitches permitting, to finish today, project officials said.
They said they were ahead of schedule in part because they discovered, once traffic was detoured Friday night and surveying took place, that they would need only the 800 tons of asphalt, instead of the 1,200 tons they initially expected to use.
The deadline for finishing had been set at 5 a.m. tomorrow.
The task was to tie in the ends of a new length of highway that will shift a stretch of the Beltway's outer loop south where it goes under South Washington Street in Alexandria and heads toward the bridge.
Officials involved in the complex construction project for a new Wilson Bridge wanted traffic rerouted so they could work on the paving and complete the South Washington Street overpass.
Dire warnings were issued last week about tomorrow's deadline and the likelihood of huge weekend tie-ups.
But at the job site yesterday, all the asphalt on the west end of the new segment had been put down by 8:45 a.m. Work was well underway on the east end. And no one seemed worried about deadlines.
"Been through this before," said Ryan Gorman, 32, a civil engineer and the project manager for Maryland's Corman Construction Inc., the general contractor for the weekend's work. "Plan for the unknown and the unexpected, and we've been lucky that Mother Nature's cooperated so far."
Engineers explained that the asphalt, which is a broiling hot amalgam of stone and tar, is applied in four layers: a drainage layer, followed by a base layer, an intermediate layer and a surface layer.
Delivered in huge dump trucks, it is deposited into the bay of a paving machine that then creeps along at 2 to 3 mph, spreading the asphalt and doing initial compacting. Each application is called a "pull."
The paving machine is followed by teams of workers with shovels and wide rakes who trim and smooth the asphalt, which feels like the surface of a hot stove. This work was mainly done yesterday in conditions made worse by steamy weather.
One worker, Victor Otero, 40, taking a break from raking asphalt, was asked if he thought the weather was hot. "Un poco," he said: a little. Indeed, clouds mercifully obscured the sun much of the day. But the humidity and the temperature were both nearing 90 by midafternoon.
When the paving and raking were done for that layer, Hilliard, who works for Alexandria's Virginia Paving Co., moved in with Patsy.
Hilliard worked his way up from the laborer's shovel to the high swiveling seat eight feet off the pavement, from where he drives the roller. Up there, he hangs his jacket over the seat back, stores his lunchbox and cooler, and feels like a king.
"Over the years, I've done it all," he said from his seat as he paused to eat an orange during a break. "I take pride in my work. I'm the one that gives the people the smooth ride."
He had arrived for work Friday night as a hazy half-moon rose over the project site and had put in 13 hours by Saturday morning.
He sets his seat sideways so he has to turn only his head, whether the steamroller is heading forward or backward. Any roller man who has to move his seat around, he said, "ain't been rolling too long."
"I know this roller," he said. "This is my Cadillac." He calls it "my baby, Patsy."
"I come out here every morning, when I get to my roller, I check my oil, my water, my hydraulic fluid," he said. He greases it twice a week and cleans the dirt out of the water nozzles with tools that look like pipe cleaners. If the roller gets dry, it'll pick up the asphalt instead of pressing it down.
And workers always have to be careful. A railing between his seat and the giant front roller bears a sign that reads: "Warning. Do not sit on railing."
Asphalt must be treated carefully. It has to be compacted to a certain density. Inspectors will test it with a machine that looks like a Geiger counter after all the layers are down. "My job is to get a certain number on the test," Hilliard said.
Patsy's rollers are sprayed with water to cool the asphalt during a run and can vibrate to aid compaction.
But Hilliard doesn't want too much water. Every asphalt layer is different. "When you're rolling asphalt . . . some take water and some can't take a whole lot of water," he said. "I've been in it for a while, so I can tell how much water to shoot to it."
And too much vibration can result in ripples in the surface, he said, "like somebody who's got waves in their hair."
Patsy is a big roller and makes the first roll on the asphalt, he said.
A smaller roller, model DD90, will come in afterward and make the surface even smoother.
But he and his machine go first. The stakes are high. He must satisfy the numbers of the "density man," then the inspectors who test for a smooth surface. Any mistakes, any bad numbers, and "they've got to back in here and take this asphalt back up," he said. "So I got a very important job.
"I don't get a failing number," he said. "I ain't got one yet, and I don't plan on getting one."
A steamroller runs over asphalt, which must be compacted to a certain density. Inspectors test the surface with a machine that looks like a Geiger counter after all the layers are down. Workers had put down half of a projected 800 tons of asphalt by yesterday morning and were on track to finish today. Project managers had initially expected to use 1,200 tons. A worker using an infrared sensor measures the temperature of newly laid asphalt at 298 degrees. When it cools to 150 degrees, another layer will be added. A small army of laborers has been working round-the-clock since Friday night to complete the paving by tomorrow's 5 a.m. deadline.