Mind The Gap

PrintPrintEmailEmailIn 1975 my job in the U.S. Steel Coal Development group involved frequent travel from our Pennsylvania headquarters to a new mine under construction near Pineville, in southern West Virginia. After a few interesting flights over the mountainous terrain I quickly decided that I preferred to drive, even though the trip entailed a 40-minute switchback descent into and ascent out of the New River Gorge just north of Fayetteville. In fact that was the high point of the trip, because at the time the New River Gorge Bridge was under construction. I often stopped at the bottom of the gorge to gaze in awe at the two halves of the world’s longest steel arch as they slowly grew toward each other some 850 feet above the river.

My father was director of Construction Projects Planning for American Bridge (then a division of U.S. Steel), and the span was the grand finale of his 40-year career in steel construction. At his insistence I stopped at the job site on one of my trips and was given a VIP tour by L. M. (“Pete”) Spadey, the project superintendent. He walked me out on the deck to look down on the arch, but as we approached the point where the decking narrowed from perhaps 40 feet to 15 feet I could go no farther. I thanked him but said I’d much rather be that far underground.

On May 13, 1976, the final steel members were to be placed, with much fanfare, to tie the two arch halves into a self-supporting whole. The night before, my wife and I joined my father and and Mr. Spady and various other project dignitaries for dinner at Hawks Nest, a state park near the job site. At about seven o’clock my father approached me with a worried look, said something like, “Keep these people entertained,” and disappeared. I soon noticed that all the American Bridge people I knew had gone, but somehow no one who remained seemed to notice.

Later, sometime long after midnight, my father came to our room to explain. One of the pipes supporting the southern half of the arch had snapped with a clang heard three miles away, and the gap between the arch halves had closed by several inches.

I can only imagine the frenzied atmosphere as engineers tried to understand how the impossible could have happened, calculated and recalculated the stresses, and ultimately concluded that the structure was stable—but could become unstable if temperatures rose and the steel expanded.

The next morning was cool and hazy, but I know I was not the only person sweating as I sat with my family on the hillside overlooking the north landing zone. Below us, people were checking their watches and scanning the horizon for the sight of the governor’s helicopter arriving for the dedication. Finally the steelworkers climbed into a low-walled steel box suspended from an overhead cable, were lifted into the air, rode out, and were lowered into the middle of the unfinished span. In a few moments the box rose again with the crew on board and returned to the landing zone. After a brief, obviously tense conference, my father, Mr. Spadey, and some others climbed into the box with the crew and soon disappeared at mid-span. Then the box returned once more, leaving the crew at their station, and as my father stepped out onto solid ground, the governor’s helicopter chattered toward the south landing zone. Before it touched down, the flag-bedecked critical piece of steel was hoisted and on its way.

That afternoon, as we drove down into the gorge to view the now-completed arch from below, my father told me what had occurred that morning. The members of the crew had been fully briefed about the snapped pipe and were willing to proceed. When they got to mid-span, however, in their state of heightened awareness they heard sounds and saw things they had never noticed before. They needed the bosses to share the risk and reassure them.

“Dad, I never really understood until today what you do for a living!” I joked.

“I never rode anything like that before in my life,” he said with a grin. Then, after a long pause, he added, “You just do what needs to be done.”

Come to think of it, that’s the only explanation I ever heard from him for the Bronze Star he got at the Battle of the Bulge.