Confessions of a Big Dig Worker

It was the biggest, messiest, most thrilling thing any of us had ever worked on. But that all changed when the ceiling panels I hung fell down and killed Milena Del Valle.

How could you forget your first day? They said, “You’re gonna be building a tunnel,” but when I took my first look around, I couldn’t comprehend that. I had no idea how the whole thing was going to fit together. I was standing up on a surface road in South Boston near where the Ted Williams Tunnel and the Mass. Pike meet today, and I was looking down into this massive basin in the ground, looking at machinery and cranes and rods sticking up in the air. All that chaos was wired up with these big, heavy electrical lines that snaked all over the place. When I got down in there, I was struck first by the noise. With all those machines, you had to shout to the person standing next to you. And there was the smell. You know how you get behind an 18-wheeler on the highway, and you get a whiff of its exhaust? Imagine standing in that—the smell just assaulted your nostrils. I’d been around plenty of big projects before—I used to work down at the shipyard in Quincy—but nothing compared to this. A job site had never intimidated me. This one did. I wondered if I’d made the right decision.

That first day I started unloading those notorious 3-ton ceiling panels, using a crane to take them off the trucks they came in on and stack them up in a storage area. We were still months away from hanging them, but right from the start I had my hands on those things. I’d climb up on the truck and then signal the crane operator to lower his hooks so I could connect them to the big concrete slabs. Then he’d pull up on the crane and we’d stack the slabs up someplace nearby. Sounds pretty easy, but the problem was I’d never used these crane hooks before. Here I was thinking I was some bigtime journeyman ironworker—and I couldn’t figure out how to open these goddamn hooks. I was afraid of looking like a fool. I was working with a buddy of mine and I was waiting for him to say something smart, call me a stupid sonofabitch, you know? But he must’ve seen the expression on my face, the panic, and he said, “Just hold it in one hand, and snap it back with your thumb.” That was all the training I got, but I figured it out.

That was 1998, when I showed up down there. By then I’d been working as a union ironworker for about 10 years. I grew up in Weymouth and gave college a shot after high school, but I ended up putting it aside to go to work. After I spent a decade working as a ship fitter, the Quincy shipyard closed. They gave us some retraining money, and I studied to be an electronic technician. I got a job out in Needham, inspecting circuit boards under a microscope. They put me in a white smock, in a building with no windows. I lasted about a year. It just wasn’t me. I guess I’m an outside dog.

I was 39 years old when I was accepted into the ironworkers’ three-year apprentice program. I was running around getting coffee for guys half my age. I had to just swallow it, suck it up as part of the baptism of an apprentice. When I started getting work, the jobs were sporadic, but pretty soon people were talking about this Big Dig at our monthly union meetings. The business agent would get up at the microphone and talk about upcoming work; he’d always say the Big Dig was right around the corner. We were going to be all set for the next five years, he’d tell us. We’d heard promises before about work that was coming up but just never happened, so I took it with a grain of salt. But this guy kept saying we’ve never seen anything like this. “We don’t have enough members to do all this work,” he’d say. “We’re gonna have to bring ’em in from Canada, we’re gonna have to bring ’em in from the West Coast.”

It’s hard not to get excited about something so big. It was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wanted to be part of it. You know, boys playing with trucks—well, this was gonna be the ultimate. And when it came, it was just like they predicted: They were crying for help. The project cleaned out the union hall, so they called all the other locals, and then they called all over the country looking for people. They had an 800 number that encouraged guys to come work on the Big Dig. The message was out: Just get to Boston, man, you’ll find a job all right. They were taking bartenders, barbers, anybody they could find.

Right away I started working Saturdays, and Saturday for us was double time. So I started making some very good money—enough to clear up my debt and start socking away some savings. Enough to buy an RV, even. I got this sense of relief that I hadn’t had in years. It’s a tough thing to get laid off all the time; it does a job on you emotionally. For the first time in a long time, I knew things were going to be okay for quite a while.

Pretty quick, they made me a foreman. I guess my bosses figured I’d learned a thing or two about those ceiling panels, because when it came time to deal with those things again, I was leading the crew. The plan was to assemble the slabs of concrete on the ground and then hang them from the ceiling, kind of like putting a drop ceiling in your basement or something.

We put together 40-foot lengths of ceiling at a time. We’d set a pair of 40-foot-long steel beams on the ground parallel to each other, about 15 feet apart, like big train tracks. Then we’d lower five concrete panels next to each other onto the steel, spanning from beam to beam, tightening the slabs down with bolts. Later we’d raise this thing as a single unit, lifting it up with a hydraulic machine and hanging it five feet or so down from the roof of the tunnel. Once we had the ceiling tiles in place, we’d install steel panels to the sides, turning the thing into a sort of box that hung above the roadway.

I had between 15 and 20 guys on my crew, fellas from all over. A lot of different guys—but a lot of us were the same in some ways, too. The place was full of just a bunch of good characters, guys who liked to laugh, who were unpretentious, and who were interested in a good honest day’s work. Most guys were there to work hard, get paid well, so they could go home and feed their families.

Now, with all those people down there, you’re gonna get some bad apples, too. Was there some of that? Sure. The press called the project the Big Swig because some people thought there was so much drinking going on down there. Me, I didn’t see as much as people might think. There was one time, though, when I had to send a guy home. He’d just come back from lunch, and I watched him wobble down the tunnel. When he got within 50 feet, I swear I could smell the sonofabitch. I asked him how much he’d had to drink, and he said, “The usual: half a pint of peppermint schnapps and six beers.” So I told him to leave. He was fine the next day.

At some points we started working at 6 in the morning, sometimes until 7 at night. That’s serious overtime pay, sure, but it takes a toll. We were pulling 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. In the tunnel, you set your life to the coffee break. That was our watch. You measure the time until the first coffee break, the distance from there to lunch, and then you focus on quitting time. We had good coffee breaks. We’d all have to come from different areas of that tunnel—we were spread out, sometimes as much as half a mile—and we’d all come together at this little shack about the size of a mobile home. We should’ve only had about 20 minutes, but lots of times that whole process stretched to half an hour. I think they realized the conditions were tough, and they’d let the time slide a bit.

Most places in the tunnel were protected from the weather when it was bitter outside. But we’d still wear big winter coats and sweaters, scarves, ski masks, and leather gloves to fight the cold. They had these giant jet fans going down there, to keep the air moving, and in the wintertime that got brutal. Guys would turn their backs to those fans to keep from getting frostbit, and sometimes it’d just be too much and we’d yank the plugs on those things. Before long, some inspector would come by and turn the fans back on. It was a constant fight.

Each time they’d crank the fan back up, the wind would kick a dust storm down the tunnel. The same thing would happen when they’d test the vent system. A couple of times, on account of some miscommunication, I got stuck up in the duct system when that happened. Try to imagine it: All of a sudden you get smacked by a hurricane wind, your safety glasses get shot off your face, and your hardhat goes tumbling a few hundred feet down the shaft. Then when they shut off the wind you gotta stumble around through a cloud of dust, rubbing shit out of your eyes, and trying to find your way out.

Down at the roadway level, the machines kicked up a lot of dust, too. Things got better when they paved it over, but the dust still blew into your eyes and nose and got all in between your teeth. I’d blow my nose at night and what came out was black. It was just nasty. After a while they got a water truck—it had a big spigot out the back, like a pesticide sprayer—and they would go up and down the lanes dripping water to keep the dust down. Eventually they assigned a guy full time to that job, just fighting dust all day.

You can probably guess how musty a damp tunnel can get. But just imagine the smell that filled that place when they emptied the portable shit houses. It seemed like they always did that during our coffee or lunch breaks. You wanna try eating a tuna sandwich with that in the air? The smell of diesel fuel hung around to the very end, too. We complained about it a lot. Modern Continental would send their safety people out with handheld sniffer devices to measure the carbon dioxide level. It always seemed to check out. It didn’t matter if you were passing out in there, the levels were always acceptable. Sometimes I’d get dizzy. Some guys quit because of the headaches.

Controlling the environment was a challenge, for sure. Sometimes a string of lights might go out, and it could be a week before they were fixed. Things would be a little dim for a while; you just had to get used to it. Sometimes the halogen lights went out altogether and things would go black. We used to welcome this, actually. We’d take a seat, tell some stories, maybe share a few lies and a smoke. We’d enjoy those little extra breaks, but if they lasted for more than a few minutes we’d get a little worried. You didn’t want to be stuck working up in the ceiling area and have to move around there in the dark. With all the overhead beams and metal hanging from the tunnel, it was a dangerous place to walk around. You were liable to get your bell rung with every step. I don’t want to paint a totally unfair picture. We were tough guys. Things got better as we went along. But for at least half of our time down there, the conditions—the smell, the temperature, the noise, the dirt—were horrendous.

You know what really got under the skin of the guys down there? The clean guys who came by in the white hardhats, the inspectors from Bechtel or Modern Continental. We called those guys pecker-checkers. You could usually spot ’em pretty far off because they looked nothing like us. But sometimes they’d just appear over your shoulder, watching you work. That term “pecker-checker,” we used that down on the docks in Quincy to describe the inspectors. That’s where it came from. We all knew that they were just doing their jobs, but ironworkers are a strange breed. We’re scrappers and, if you believe what they say in the trades, the kind of guys who don’t like authority. We always thought that if they were speaking to us at all, they were talking down to us.

A lot of them had these little golf carts they’d run around in, kicking up dust as they went. These golf carts drove us nuts because we had to walk for miles down there to get where we were working. One time this guy who was known as a real ball-breaker came tearing by. When he parked his cart, we stuck a chain around it and then hooked the other end to a column. So when he came back to drive off, he tore the whole ass end of the thing right off, and we were rolling around laughing. We loved to steal those carts, too, every chance we got. A few of them even ended up parked outside the bars on D Street in Southie.

Look, nobody thought that there shouldn’t have been supervisors down there. There was just this feeling that the pecker-checkers prevented us from doing our job, that they harassed people. Maybe that was fair, maybe not, but that’s how attitudes hardened. With all those eyes around, it amazes me that anything could have gone wrong. When we first began erecting the ceiling panels, those guys were all over the place.

There were these metal rods that hung from the roof of the tunnel, kind of like icicles, and our job was to hang the ceiling panels on them. Workers from the laborers’ union had gone ahead of us and drilled them into the concrete roof. They used epoxy and bolts to anchor them in place, and then we took over, hanging concrete from these bolts. Now, this didn’t sit so well with us and we had a beef with the laborers over who should install the bolts. We were never scared that they were going to screw something up. I mean, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to drill a hole, pump some glue in there, and stuff in a bolt—but all the same, we wanted the job of installing the bolts. We assembled the concrete panels and we were gonna be the ones hanging them up in 15-ton sections. So we disputed the issue and our supervisors talked it out. But the laborers kept the job in the end. We could never figure out why. We were in the dark on that.

The laborers could put in those epoxy bolts only so fast. They’d install them and then we’d wait for a few days for the epoxy to set. Then we had to wait for the bolts to be tested before we could hang the concrete panels from them. I remember looking up there, and thinking about how much each slab weighed, and feeling a little uneasy. A lot of guys did. I questioned it. Other guys questioned it. But we didn’t get aggressive. My foreman told me, “These things have been tested, and we’re told they’re strong as steel, and maybe even stronger.”

I went and spoke to a few other supervisors and they said they were told the same thing. There were lots of engineers, they said, who assured them that the epoxy bolts were just fine. I think we all still felt a little uneasy, but that started giving way once we saw they were holding. You know, I feel guilty about this now. Maybe I should’ve said more. But when enough people tell you something is all right, you start to believe them. These are people who have expertise and education. Who the hell were we? We just did what we were told.

When I heard it on the radio this summer, I was driving on the Southeast Expressway out to my current job site, out on the new Fields Corner MBTA station, over in Dorchester. I heard the guy on the radio say a ceiling panel had come down. A woman was killed. My spirit just sank, and I started tearing up. I had to slow down because I was in traffic and I couldn’t pull over. I thought that it could have been any one of us that got crushed. The next thing I thought was that what had killed her was something I’d had my hands on, something that I had put there. I started to think, was I responsible in some way for killing this woman?

When I got to the job, guys were milling around in the shanty before work. Everybody was talking about it. They kept it up all day. The guy who’s my partner now, he was down there in the tunnel with me, and I asked him a lot of questions about what he thought had happened. We hadn’t heard anything about the epoxy bolts failing yet, but I thought right away that could be the weak spot.

It occurred to me pretty quickly that somebody might’ve been sleeping at the switch when it came time to inspect. What really makes me mad is that we were told these bolts were tested. We were told not to worry. My foreman swore the bolts were tested. My outrage has nothing to do with him—I’m sure he got his information from somewhere above him. I just think somebody pretty high up must have passed word down that we should feel good about these things, and so we did. I’m angry because this woman didn’t have to die. If even a half-assed inspection was done, this could have been caught. People can talk about poor engineering and shoddy work, but the simple fact is that this tragedy could have been prevented by an inspection.

Late this summer the state cops and the FBI came to chat with me. When the special agent flashed his badge at me and the statie who was with him said hello, I said, “Oh my God, do I need a fucking lawyer?” But I realized I’ve got nothing to hide. They asked about the bolts and I told them that I had a nagging question that some of the epoxy used down there might have been outdated. I don’t know, though. I have a tough time remembering if it was epoxy or caulking or what. They also wanted to know about our supervision; they gave me the impression that they figured we could have used a bit more of it. They explained their investigation by saying they were starting from the ground and working their way up. Their exact words to me were, “Whoever’s at fault in this is going to jail.”

I think I’m going to be subpoenaed, and I won’t be surprised to be put through the grinder. I’m not relishing the thought, I can tell you that. But maybe some good can come out of all this. Lately I’ve been thinking about what it’s taught me. And that’s easy: I’ve learned to raise my voice a bit more, and to feel okay asking questions or walking off a job if I’ve got concerns. I’m not just going trust some guy with an MIT degree who says something’s okay. If my gut doesn’t feel right about something, I’m going to say so. I don’t ever want to feel this way again, about somebody getting killed on a project that I had my hands on. That’s a lousy stinking feeling. I assembled that thing, and it killed an innocent person.

As tough as it is to work through some of that, I find I’m still proud of the job. And I like that. You know, I still point everything out to my family when we drive through there. They’ve gotta be sick of it, but I love being able to say, “I worked on that.” Even now. I’m proud of the people who were down there, and I don’t want people to lose faith in the workers. We went in there every day, and we worked hard and built something amazing. We’re your next-door neighbor. We’re good people. We didn’t do anything wrong. We just went to work.