The sky is black as the giant girder swings on its Kevlar cables from the construction crane on the Potomac River barge below.
An air horn has just sounded a three-blast warning, and the 218-foot-long, 86-ton hunk of bridge steel slowly rotates toward Trevlin Bransom, who pulls on a work glove and walks to meet it.
It’s about 10:30 on a recent evening. The illuminated Lincoln Memorial glows in the distance. And the “pick,” as such a heavy lift is called, is underway beneath the spotlights in the middle of Arlington Memorial Bridge.
This is the fifth of six big girders to be installed on the south side of the hallowed bridge’s former draw span, and a key piece of the $227 million project to overhaul the 87-year-old landmark.
Bransom, a 48-year-old iron worker from Bryans Road, Md., is tethered to a safety cable as the huge piece of steel comes at him. He wears a yellow hard hat and is armed with an eight-pound hammer called a beater and a long, pointed implement called a spud wrench.
As the beam is lowered, he stands on a cement wall where the girder will rest about 30 feet over the river. He has a handheld radio in one hand, to talk to the crane operator, and grasps the girder with the other hand to ease it into position.
It’s a warm night with little breeze. Wind can be deadly during a pick, because the broad girder can act like a sail. Ten mph or more can be very bad. Several picks on the bridge have been canceled over the past few days because of wind and weather.
There’s no traffic on the river, which is good, because a boat’s wake can get a barge moving, which is not good, Bransom says.
Vehicle traffic on the bridge is briefly stopped during the operation.
Across the river, on Ohio Drive, the red taillights of passing cars are reflected in the water.
Suddenly, Bransom starts swatting at something on the surface of the metal.
Bransom detests spiders, and they are all over the place. He is fine handling a huge object that could squash him in an instant. But spiders he has no time for. “I don’t like spiders,” he said in an interview later.
Once the girder is nudged into an end bracket that will keep it in place, Bransom lines up the holes with a tool called a connecting bar, which resembles a big steel toothpick.
Straddling the girder, he then begins to tighten some of the 30,000 bolts that go with the assembly, and will hold the famous bridge together for other generations.
The steel is being installed to underpin the new bridge roadway where the old draw section has been removed. (For the past few weeks, the south side of the bridge has looked like a grin with a missing tooth.)
An iron worker for 27 years, Bransom has done this type of thing many times before. “I love the job,” he said.
“It’s like second nature,” he said in an interview later. “Weight-wise, this is peanuts. I’ve picked up stuff a lot bigger than that.”
But this is still a big piece of metal and he needs things to go smoothly.
“I don’t like . . . hiccups,” he said. “I do think if something happens which way to run . . . which way can I go. I might break something but at least I won’t get crushed.”
As the girder dangled in the air, David Marcic, the lead structural engineer for the removal and replacement of the draw section, stood nearby observing.
Everything was going well, so far, he said.
“There’s only so much sweating you can do,” said Marcic, who is with the bridge engineering firm Hardesty & Hanover. “We’ve done a lot of planning, a lot of design . . . I’d be pretty surprised to have something not fit. Things happen, of course. But there’s been a lot of planning.”
The girders resemble giant knife blades. They come in three pieces that are fastened together. The middle section weighs 50 tons. Each end piece weighs 12 tons.
They were fabricated over recent months by High Steel Structures, of Lancaster, Pa., carved out of steel slabs on a 200-foot-long cutting table to the bridge’s design specifications, said Ronnie Medlock, the firm’s vice president of technical services.
The steel, some of it three inches thick, was carved with computer-assisted plasma or oxy acetylene cutting tools, he said.
The finished pieces were then assembled in an outdoor yard to see if they fit together properly. They were then disassembled, cleaned, painted and shipped with other equipment to the bridge site via truck.
They were then loaded on the barge, reassembled and moved to the bridge. Late last month, they were installed at night, to minimize traffic disruptions.
They were lifted by a huge yellow crane capable of hoisting 300 tons, at the end of green cables called chokers. Two white ropes guided them, like the strings on a puppet.
Designed in the neoclassical style in the 1920s by the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, the 2,100-foot-long bridge has borne mourners to Arlington National Cemetery, legions of motorcycles on Memorial Day, and the feet of countless pilgrims and protesters since it opened in 1932.
To say nothing of the 68,000 vehicles that pounded across on a daily basis before the repairs began.
Perhaps Washington’s most beautiful bridge, it symbolically links North and South, the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, in Arlington Cemetery, according to the National Park Service, which is overseeing the project.
The central draw span, once the longest and fastest-opening in the world, had not been raised since 1961, because other low bridges on the river prevented navigation by taller ships.
It is now being removed and replaced with a section that does not open.
The center of the bridge is currently being supported by 12 temporary pilings driven down to bedrock, said Chris Close, a transportation branch chief with the Park Service.
Even as the repair project is well underway, a walk through the old structure beneath the bridge shows peeling paint, corroded steel and the gigantic antique gears that once raised the draw span. The gears will be removed and recycled, said Jonathan Shafer, a spokesman for the Park Service.
The project began last year. When work on the south side of the bridge is finished, the project will shift to the north side. The job is expected to be finished by 2021.
“A lot of work went into the planning and design . . . to remember and recognize that this bridge is a memorial,” said Close.
“It’s not necessarily a typical bridge,” he said.