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Tunnel with a Deadly Toll

updated 02/20/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1984 01:00AM

It is Monday before dawn at the Hog House in Van Cortlandt Park, the Bronx. The sandhogs are busy changing into their motley work gear, pulling on hard hats and knee-high rubber boots with steel toes. As they dress, the locker room erupts with obscene taunts, merciless needling and raucous laughter, all meant to release pent-up tension. In a few moments these men will descend into the eerie netherworld of Water Tunnel Three. A new underground aqueduct linking New York City to its upstate reservoirs, it promises to be, when completed, the most expensive and protracted public works project in U.S. history.

At precisely 6:45 a.m. the rowdiness ceases as Sailor, a union safety expert, takes the floor for his weekly lecture. "Watch out for falling ice," he tells the men, whose faces have turned grim. "We had a couple guys killed by that. I don't want anyone lollygagging around shaft 2-B-2—it's very bad. Watch your footing. Don't be lax. And for godsakes, please wear your safety belts!"

All eyes flick toward Joe Shubar. He had been wearing a safety belt in 1980 when his work platform broke free and plummeted 45 stories down a shaft leading from the surface to the main tunnel. Miraculously, the platform jarred to a halt 40 feet from a certain fatal crash at the bottom. Just as Shubar was thanking God he had survived, the platform plunged the rest of the way. His physical injuries were minor, but the cruelty of that second fall left its scars. Nobody has made a safety belt to guard against nightmares. "I may seem calm, but my insides are going like a house on fire," says Shubar, his voice nearly cracking. "To this day I wake up with cold sweats."

Many sandhogs wake up that way. Despite all the precautions, "driving tunnel" is a risky business. The men who do it are well paid—about $50,000 a year with overtime—and well traumatized. Since construction started in 1970, 23 sandhogs have perished (each May there is a memorial Mass for the dead) and more than 800 men have missed at least one day's work due to injuries ranging from broken bones to minor sprains. Every week one or more of the 500 men in the tunnel is hurt in an accident.

Still, the city has little choice but to press on. Time is running out on the two antiquated tunnels that now deliver all New York's water. Tunnel One was built in 1917; Tunnel Two in 1937. Neither was designed to last more than 50 years, and the huge control valves on both have become so corroded they can no longer be turned. When that was last tried, in 1954, city water pressure dropped ominously. Neither tunnel has ever been inspected internally and neither can be, explains one city official, "Because we're afraid that if we close the valves we won't be able to open them again."

When the first two sections of the new Tunnel Three become operational at the turn of the century, it will finally be possible to shut down Tunnels One and Two for inspection and repair. Until then, it's nervous time. "A partial collapse of those old tunnels would be a disaster," says Bheema Rao, resident engineer on Tunnel Three. "A total collapse would be a catastrophe."

Work on Tunnel Three goes on around the clock, in three eight-hour shifts. The first section, now under construction at a cost to the city of $1 billion, will stretch 13 miles from Hill-view Reservoir in suburban Yonkers to Central Park in Manhattan and then out to Queens. Later sections (four are planned, with completion due around 2040) will expand this multilevel engineering marvel to 60 miles, at a total cost of $4.5 billion. The project is not eligible for federal funds, and the city is footing the entire bill.

Blasted through bedrock, the primary pipe of the new tunnel, 24 feet in diameter, is wide enough to drive a train through. It lies buried 200 to 800 feet below the earth's surface. To reach their subterranean work sites each day, the sandhogs take a tense ride in an elevator with two open sides. As the cage descends, the men huddle in its center to avoid the ice and sheer rock walls whizzing by. About 75 feet down the 45-story shaft, the cage leaves behind the light from the surface and is plunged into total darkness. Light returns 280 feet down when the cage reaches the incandescent glare of the "chamber." Sixty-five feet high and the length of two football fields, the chamber will eventually house 34 stainless steel valves eight feet in diameter that will regulate the flow of water in the tunnel.

At present, however, the chamber has the look of an infernal region designed by a contemporary Hieronymus Bosch: The air is damp and often close to freezing, requiring the men to wear several extra layers of clothing and underwear (arthritis and bursitis are frequent complaints). The deafening clatter of jackhammers, compressors and heavy machinery caroms off the stone walls. Workers must shout to be understood and have to be lucky to hear oncoming equipment. A choking cloud of diesel exhaust hangs in the air. The muck is ankle-deep. High-voltage lines snake everywhere among pools of water and slippery puddles of machine oil and grease. Footing is precarious, especially on the narrow plank bridges spanning the chamber. The ceiling is studded with rock bolts to prevent cave-ins, but, says Chickie Donohue, the on-site union representative, with a shrug, "they still happen."

To the men who work there, the chamber is a gigantic cathedral of primal horrors where they routinely calculate their chances of being trapped, drowned, crushed, electrocuted or buried alive. "I've seen men get off this cage," says Donohue, "take one look around and get right back on. They say, 'I need a job bad but, sweet Jesus, not this bad.' "

Federal safety inspectors check Tunnel Three whenever there is a serious accident, but the dangers resist all precautions. Before Joe Shubar's accident, for instance, engineers spent 10 weeks installing additional safety features on the platform on which he nearly died. Two years later, in 1982, a seven-ton motorized cement mixer broke free of its restraints and barreled at 40 mph into a group of nine men who were erecting a scaffold. Jimmy Ryan, one of the nine, fell 25 feet, broke several ribs, dislocated both shoulders and required 140 stitches on his head and face. One man lost a leg, another his spleen. Ryan lost his personality. "I used to be a happy-go-lucky guy," he says. "But if you get hurt, it changes you." Ryan was so spooked by what happened he claims he will never return to that part of the tunnel. "The accident took the life out of Jimmy, the exuberance," says a co-worker.

But close encounters with mortality don't always have a sobering effect. Larry Hanratty used to be known as a serious fellow—used to be, that is, until a whole rock face caved in on him. "I shoulda been dead," he says. He very nearly was. A rescue worker discovered him when he tripped over Larry's hand protruding from the rubble. Given a second chance at life, Hanratty was reborn as a joker, a laugher and perhaps the most ebullient Irishman in the Bronx. "Sure it changed my outlook," he says with a manic grin. Donohue agrees. "Larry's nuts," he says. "He's a comic. He can't do anything straight. But if you talk about safety, he gets very upset."

There are about 1,200 sandhogs in the New York area. They earned the nickname more than 100 years ago during the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, while digging out the foundations in muck-filled caissons. Then, as now, sandhogs were primarily Irishmen and blacks, Chickie Donohue explains, "because the Irish and the blacks were the only ones desperate enough to do the work." The ethnic composition has been maintained because the union is officially father-son: With few exceptions, a man's father must be, or have been, a sandhog for him to become one (daughters are also eligible, but none have applied).

Local 147 is also father-son in a deeper sense. Joe Mazzariello, 34, has been a sandhog for 12 years. In Vietnam, "Crazy Joe Mazz" was a tunnel rat. His job, perhaps the most hair-raising in the Marines, was to crawl into booby-trapped Vietcong bunkers and root out the enemy, face to face. Severely wounded twice, Mazzariello swore, he says, that "I'd never go into a tunnel again once I got out." After his discharge Joe attended college for three years. He had an unsuccessful go at a low-paying sales job. Finally, he broke down and asked his sandhog father to get him into the union.

Frank Mazzariello was distraught, and still is. "Me, I wasn't much of a bright man," says Frank, who has a third-grade education. "But Joey, he's got brains for better than this. Who the hell wants to see their kid hurt?"

Hence, the Great Sandhog Blood and Money Paradox: The fathers slave in the hole so their sons can go to college and avoid such dangers. The kids go to school, and some even graduate. Then, inevitably, many of them realize they will never earn what their fathers do. So the sons become sandhogs too. "Every sandhog's wish is to get the hell out of the tunnel," says Joe Mazzariello. "I hate the job. The problem is I love the money."

The only other thing Mazzariello loves about the job is the men who share his danger. "We got a camaraderie that transcends words," he says. "It's like—like the civilian Marines: 'Semper Fi.' Everyone looks out for everyone else on his work gang." In fact, the unwritten rule is that if a man doesn't look out for the others, if he's a loner, he simply won't work. He'll be off the gang.

But even with vigilance, says Joe, "You never know if you're gonna come up again." Six months ago a crane operator accidentally knocked Mazzariello off a ladder. He fell 25 feet to the tunnel floor, suffered a variety of muscle injuries and was out three months. But most of the damage, he says, "was psychological—fear. Finally, with my wife pregnant, I realized I had to go back." It was a terrible moment, according to his wife, Jackie. "When he knew he'd have to go back, Joe got upset and started cursing," she recalls. "Each day, he still tells me in detail how much he hates his job."

Even sandhogs who like the job's challenges draw the line when it comes to their children. Bill Laban, 50, happens to find working in the tunnel exhilarating. But that doesn't mean he's happy to see his baby-faced, bull-like 19-year-old son Scott working beside him. "I don't mind worrying about myself," says Bill, "but it bothers me to worry about Scott. I absolutely did not want my boy down here."

At the bottom of 2-B-9, a vertical shaft that leads from the main tunnel to the chamber above, Laban's six-man gang is tackling a problem. In this highly confined space, a work platform has, by miscalculation, been placed in the wrong position. Laban must reposition it using the equipment available, which is simply not powerful enough to do the job. He has to jury-rig a solution, using a couple of winches, some cable and a cherry picker. On the surface, says Laban, the job would take 20 minutes. In the tunnel it takes several hours. Laban, like a safety-conscious maestro, orchestrates his men's movements: "Stay off that boom, Joey.... Don't even come near it....Keep clear of the cable, Jimmy...."

When they finish the task and elevate the realigned platform into the shaft, Laban is fairly glowing with pride. "Look up," he says, standing with his son and gazing up at the platform. "What do you see?" Laban opens his arms expansively, his face illuminated by the harsh, flickering glare of an acetylene torch. "When I look up I see the Sistine Chapel."

Bill Laban waves away the cherry picker. For a moment blessed silence reigns in 2-B-9. Then, suddenly, something creaks loudly at the top of the shaft, as if part of Laban's chapel is giving way. A timber? A beam? A rock bolt? It's nothing serious, but Laban doesn't wait to find out. Instinctively and with catlike grace, he pulls his son out of harm's way.

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