70 years ago in The Villager


By Josh Rogers

Volume 73, Number 24 | October 15 – 21, 2003

Sandhogs start tunneling below Lower West Side

New York City’s third water tunnel is now penetrating the very depths of Chelsea and will reach the West Village within the next few months.

Such a phallic description has perhaps never been more appropriate than for the tunnel – a 50-year, 60-mile, $6 billion project where currently only men work.

Water Tunnel Number 3, 600 ft. below ground, is so far down that reportedly even rats don’t dare show their faces. About the only species to be found is a sandhog — the name for the workers who have been toiling in eight-hour shifts since 1970. They expect to be finished in 2020.

Jim O’Donnell, 42, has been working on the tunnel with his brother since he was 18 and said once a worker makes it through the first shift, he is well on his way to becoming a sandhog.

“You know the first day. If they make it past that, they’re fine,” O’Donnell said last week during a tour of the tunnel for reporters and Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

O’Donnell said some men and women can’t take the conditions — that is, lack of natural light, the dark, wet tunnel or the idea of being the equivalent of a skyscraper’s height below street level. He said the women who have tried in the past have given up either because of the conditions or the physical demands of the job.

“There’s a lot of heavy machinery,” said O’Donnell. “You need some brawn.”

Twenty-three workers have died building the tunnel. Construction has gotten safer since workers have begun using a tunnel-boring machine, nicknamed “the mole,” and have eliminated most of the need to use dynamite. Fire in the tunnel is another danger. Reporters were warned before descending in the lift that a fire is likely to cause a shutdown of electricity and would cut off the ventilation. D.E.P. officials said sandhogs would make sure everyone got a gas mask, which reporters would know was working if it caused a painful burning sensation in the mouth. They were warned to fight the instinct to pull the mask away.

Water Tunnel 3 will allow the city to shut its two early-20th century tunnels for repairs.

“The tunnel will give us security that really we absolutely have to have,” Bloomberg said.

Christopher Ward, the city’s commissioner of the Dept. of Environmental Protection, said both tunnels are in good shape, but it takes years to drain and repair them, so you can’t wait to see signs of deterioration.

Stage 2 of the project involving boring an 8.5-mile stretch in Manhattan and 5.5 miles in Brooklyn and Queens, is scheduled to be completed in 2008, at which time repairs on the existing tunnels will begin.

Ward said shafts connecting the tunnel to the street will provide opportunities to build new parks in some places. One is planned for the parking lot at Hudson and Houston Sts. and is likely to be made into a second ballpark across the street from J.J. Walker Park.

The sandhogs expect to get to Houston St. in six months, and it won’t be long after that they will be under Tribeca. Judy Duffy, assistant district manager of Community Board 1, said there will be a shaft near the Holland Tunnel rotary at Laight St. and one at James Madison Plaza, near St. James Pl. and Madison St.

Another shaft is expected to be built on Ninth Ave. between 13th and 14th Sts., which will require closing at least half of Ninth Ave while the shaft is being built, next to the site of the new Hotel Gansevoort, currently under construction. The shafts take about 18 months to build, but Duffy said people from other community boards have told her that shaft construction is only disruptive the first few weeks when the work is at street level. The tunnel construction causes virtually no disruption because it is so far below the street.

The shafts provide access to the tunnel and bring water up to water mains.

Ward said D.E.P. has adjusted the route so it will be able to work simultaneously on different parts of the tunnel and shave two years off the completion date.

Once the Downtown section is finished, the sandhogs will head north from 30th St. up to Lincoln Center.

There are currently two shifts of sandhogs per day, but the city expects to expand to three shortly. The job includes using the mole to carve out the rock, a relatively quiet process. Every five feet of tunnel dug out produces enough rocks to fill a 60-ft.-long train. The train then transports the rocks through the tunnel to the shaker — a machine that breaks the rock into smaller pieces. The shaker makes sounds as loud as explosions and is the loudest noise heard in the tunnel on a typical day. Once broken down into smaller sizes, the rocks are loaded onto a conveyor belt that transports the rocks up to street level.

Bloomberg said he respected the sandhogs’ sacrifice. “It’s a dangerous job,” he said. “It’s cold. It’s damp. It’s confined and there’s very big machinery.”

Paul Wegman, 24, who has been working in the tunnel for three years, said he is one of the “hillbilly sandhogs” because he drives 125 miles every day from Upstate New York. He said he sometimes thinks about the job’s importance to the city, but mostly he thinks of it the same as one of his previous construction jobs. “At first I was like, ‘Wow, look at all this,’ ” he said. “After awhile, it’s a job.”

Photo by Josh Rogers

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