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Iron workers fixing Washington’s historic Memorial Bridge manhandle steel girders — and mind their fingers

A 5,000-pound truss must be carefully bolted to a panel before the entire piece can be reattached to the bridge.

Nestor Caballero, left, is handed a tool by Carlos Munoz as they worked to repair the ornate metal fascia of the Arlington Memorial Bridge. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Pinky’s on the radio with the crane operator on the barge down below.

Iron workers Carlos Munoz and Nestor Caballero, in safety harnesses and sunglasses, are ready with their spud wrenches.

And manager Dave Andrews is wearing a yellow hard hat with the slogan “Nobody gets hurt.”

Dangling from the crane high over the Potomac River is a 5,000-pound piece of steel truss that is being attached to the newly repaired facing panel, or fascia, from the south side of Arlington Memorial Bridge.

The repairs have been underway inside a huge white enclosure downstream from the bridge, where the fascia was taken for the work. In a few weeks it will be moved by barge and, using the new truss, will be reattached to the bridge.

As the workers wait, the crane eases the truss into the narrow space between the fascia and the scaffolding erected to fix it. The truss swings slightly, and the men wear leather gloves marked in red with the warning “Watch your hands.”

The smallest mistake can lead to crushed bones.

“Watch your fingers!” iron worker foreman Mike “Pinky” Edelen calls out. “Coming back down. Watch yourself. … Coming down. Watch your fingers."

The fascia repair is the latest big step in the $227 million project to overhaul the 87-year-old landmark. The work began last year.

Designed in the 1920s, the famous 2,100-foot-long bridge has borne generations of motorists, Arlington National Cemetery mourners, and the feet of myriad pilgrims and protesters since it opened in 1932.

With its elegance and 11 arches, the span symbolically links North and South, the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, according to the National Park Service, which is overseeing the project.

But it is in poor condition, with much of its massive under structure corroded and crumbling. It had undergone patchwork fixes for years.

The first phase of the rehabilitation is taking place on the south side of the bridge. When that is finished, work will move to the north side. Much of the job has happened on the bridge itself, but some parts, like the fascia and its support truss, had to be removed to be refurbished.

High over the Potomac River, iron workers ease an 86-ton monster into place

On Monday, the truss piece was plucked by the huge yellow crane from an adjacent barge and swung out over the river’s green water. Two handling ropes dangled from the corners. The Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument stood in the background.

Edelen, the foreman, grabbed one of the ropes and guided the truss as it was slowly lowered. Munoz and Caballero had to wrestle it so that its bolt-holes lined up with the holes of a piece already in place.

Munoz used a device called a chain fall to winch it. “If you need to move metal, pull it into position, you just crank on it,” said Andrews, the manager.

It’s a slow process, he said, but the device can move a weight of several tons.

Once the pieces of steel were close to each other, Munoz and Caballero used their pointed spud wrenches to get the holes aligned. Then they began fastening the nuts and bolts to hold the pieces in place.

“It’s very detailed,” Andrews said as he watched. “A lot of steps.”

Only when enough bolts were fastened could the crane relax the cable.

The bridge was originally built as a draw span, and was said to be one of the longest and fastest openings in the world. But it was last raised in 1961 because other low bridges on the river prevented navigation by taller ships.

The two wings that once opened are being replaced with a section that will be fixed in place. The fascia is the decorative metal arch that covered each wing of the draw bridge.

The south-facing fascia was removed from the bridge last December.

It was set on a barge and anchored down river, in part, by a massive ship anchor arrayed along the west shore. Scaffolding was erected, and draped in white fabric to contain dust and debris while the metal was sandblasted, cleaned and repainted.

The resulting white “tent” has become a curiosity for passersby in recent months.

The original fascia was made of Toncan Iron, said Joseph R. Fabis, a construction operations engineer for the Federal Highway Administration, which is helping to manage the project.

Toncan Iron was a rust- and corrosion-resistant metal made of iron, copper and molybdenum. It was manufactured by the Ohio-based Republic Steel, according to a company brochure in the National Archives that seems to date from the 1940s.

Fabis said he did not know whether it was made anymore.

The fascia was decorated with cast aluminum stars, flowers and other ornaments, according to a Park Service report. It is about 192 feet long, about 34 feet tall and, with its support truss, originally weighed 82 tons. The new structure will weigh about 60 tons, because the truss will be lighter.

Pieces of the old truss, rusted and corroded by time and the elements, were still on the barge. They would be cut up and recycled, Fabis said.

Some of decorative ornaments on the fascia had to be patched and others replaced, Fabis said.

Sixty-eight replacements, consisting of steel and cast aluminum, were made by Allen Architectural Metals in Talladega, Ala., which also worked on the recent repairs of the U.S. Capitol dome.

Capitol dome was refurbished after a three-year, $60 million repair project

“Because it’s Arlington, and you stand there and you just feel the history rolling across the bridge headed toward the cemetery, for me personally, I’m very passionate about it,” said John Allen, founder of the metals firm.

Fabis said the fascia will get a final coat of gray paint to make it blend with the granite of the bridge structure.

It will be barged back to the bridge and reinstalled with another crane later this month or early next month, Fabis said.

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