Miss Liberty's Restorers Place Her Under Intensive Care

updated 07/09/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/09/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Underneath the skirts of the Statue of Liberty, workmen with sweat running over the tattoos on their biceps blasted old blue-green paint from the monument's skin with guns that fired liquid nitrogen. The nitrogen was chilled to—350 degrees Fahrenheit, yet it couldn't make a dent in the heavy tropical heat of the June day. Outside, thermometers registered 97 degrees, and inside the statue, amid the deafening echo of the spray guns and the blizzard of flying paint chips, it was at least 10 degrees hotter. Taking a breather, Angelo Bommarido stepped out to the parapet to catch the salt-scented breeze and talk about the first time he saw Miss Liberty. "Seventeen years ago I saw the Statue of Liberty at 3 o'clock in the morning," he said. "I was on the boat coming over from Sicily. There were six of us—me, my three brothers and my mother and father. My mother woke us all up. 'La status,' she said. 'Look how beautiful it is.' "

Now Angelo, 35, is helping to reconstruct the statue that welcomed him to the New World. He is foreman of the restoration crew, a responsibility not to be taken lightly. "You gotta be extra careful working on the statue," he says. "There's a lot of history behind it. I try to do the best I can and make sure we do it right I hope I don't make a boo-boo. Everybody makes mistakes. I just hope I don't make one this year."

The renovation of freedom's most famous symbol (and of parts of nearby Ellis Island, the port of entry for 12 million immigrants) is an immense project that will take more than two years and cost an estimated $210 million—every nickel of it provided by private donations to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. The head of the presidential commission that established the foundation is Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, whose Italian immigrant father sailed past the statue in 1902.

The reconstruction began on Jan. 23, when laborers started to cage Miss Liberty in 300 tons of metal tubing, the world's largest freestanding aluminum scaffold. Behind the grid-work veil, an estimated 60 ironworkers, plumbers, steamfitters, electricians, masons and carpenters are renovating the famous lady from the base of her pedestal to the tip of her torch. They are repairing the two ancient spiral staircases and installing two new elevators. They are replacing 18 tons of decaying wrought-iron bars from Liberty's load-bearing skeleton with more than two miles of stainless-steel replacements. They are rebuilding the torch according to the original design and overhauling the right arm that holds it aloft. Their final task will be to give a long overdue cleaning to the 300 copper plates that form the 151-foot statue's outer skin. When they are finished, Bommarido and his fellow workers will join the nation in celebrating Liberty's rebirth at a New York Harbor gala planned for July 4, 1986 and her 100th anniversary celebration on Oct. 28, 1986.

For many of the workers, the project is far more than a job. "My grandmother was 17 years old when she came here from Scotland," says Ralph Van Kleek, 40, a deckhand on the tugboat that ferries men and materials from lower Manhattan to Liberty Island. "When she was 80, she told me about seeing the Statue of Liberty and coming through the arches at Ellis Island."

When heavy-equipment operator Robert Kearney, 52, started to work at the statue, he says, "The first thing that came to my mind was the news-reels of the GIs coming home from World War II, sailing into New York Harbor on the troopships and crying when they saw the Statue of Liberty." Kearney is a big, powerful man, with a baseball cap, sunglasses and a huge belly that provides ample shade for the heavy metal belt buckle that identifies his union, Local 825, Operating Engineers of New Jersey. "Since I was 8, I've been operating heavy equipment, starting on my brother's farm," he said. "I've run dozers, cranes, everything. But I've had three heart attacks, brain surgery and a tumor in my left kidney. Now I'm doing this instead," he says unhappily about his new, less strenuous role as elevator operator. But on this hot June day the job has one pleasant fringe benefit: While his fellow workers swelter inside the statue, Kearney is able to catch the cool sea breeze as he drives the open-caged elevator up and down past Miss Liberty's heroic facade.

On the ground below him, a group of grade school students from New Jersey watches Kearney glide effortlessly toward the cloudless blue sky, up to Liberty's light—a sight whose magnificence distracts many of the kids from the history lesson provided by their guide, National Park Ranger Paul Knaak.

Knaak, 34, holds up a picture of a crowd of immigrants on Ellis Island, forlorn, sallow-skinned people with ill-fitting clothing and frightened eyes. "Why did the immigrants come here?" he asks the students. "Why would they sell everything they owned and take a long, dangerous sea voyage to come to a place they had never seen before, where they didn't know anybody?"

"Freedom," says one girl.

"That's right," says Knaak. "Some came here for freedom. And some came because there was a war in their country, and they were afraid. Or they were starving, like in Ireland. And when these people sailed into New York, what was the first thing they saw?"

"The Statue of Liberty!" the kids yell in unison.

"Right," says Knaak. "That's what they looked for because it was a symbol of liberty and freedom in America."

Angelo Bommarido vividly remembers his first glimpse of the statue. "When my mother woke us up, we ran to the deck. The high-class people had rooms above the deck but we were way down below. We had a window but all you could see was water, so we ran to the deck. I had seen little toy Statues of Liberty but I never knew how big it was. It was beautiful."

Angelo's father, Matteo, a laborer, had sold his home in Palermo, Sicily before taking the family to the U.S. "He thought we'd have more opportunities here," says Angelo, "and he was right."

After landing in Manhattan, the Bommaridos settled in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood. Angelo, who spoke no English, took the kind of job immigrants have taken for generations: heavy work, light pay. "I was doing construction, piling bricks on skids and picking them up," he says. "That was really a killer." Soon he began dating Linda Palmeri, the granddaughter of Italian immigrants. "He knew very little English, and I knew very little Italian," she says. "Communication was difficult so I started teaching him English."

In 1971 Angelo and Linda married, and in 1976 their daughter, Jonna, was born. Since then, they've had more children—Matthew, now 4, and Steven, 2 months. The older kids are thrilled that their father is working on a famous monument. "My daughter says Angelo's going to go down in history," says Linda, 33, with a laugh. "She tells all her classmates about him and keeps all the newspaper clippings about the statue. The children couldn't understand what he did before, but now they see it on TV. There's more communication between them and him. And he's very proud to be the foreman on this job, very honored."

Bommarido has done well in America. He owns a two-family house in Queens with a garage, where he likes to putter after work, and a small, aboveground pool, where his children swim. But he is a shy man who would rather tout his brothers' achievements than his own. Tony, 31, is a computer operator. Sal, 26, is a money-market-fund broker on Wall Street. And Victor, 24, who just earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, hopes to become a lawyer. "All my brothers graduated from American colleges," Angelo says proudly. Then with a half smile he adds a self-deprecating aside, "I'm the only zip."

Linda Bommarido doesn't see it that way. "His brothers sit behind desks with their degrees, and Angelo works very hard," she says. "Sometimes he comes home at night, and he can't move his legs because he's gone up and down those little 18-inch stairs in the statue so many times. But this is nothing different. He's always worked hard."

Hard work is the cornerstone of Angelo's philosophy. "If you don't work your tail off," he says, "you don't go anywhere." Like countless immigrants before him, he hopes his labors will ensure that his children won't have to break into a sweat on the job. "I'd like my kids to be doctors or engineers, the boys and the girl," he says. "I'm gonna teach them to work hard, but I'd like them to make their living with their brains." And then Angelo Bommarido goes back to work, back to the tough, sweaty, sweltering task of rebuilding the symbol of America.

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