Sandhogs tunneling into Lower Manhattan


By Josh Rogers

New York City’s third water tunnel will be penetrating into the very depths of Lower Manhattan in 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 feet below ground, is so low that reportedly even rats don’t dare show their face. 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 with 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 a skyscraper 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 down the lift that a fire is likely to cause a shut down of electricity and would cut off the ventilation. D.E.P. officials said sandhogs would make sure everyone gets 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 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 lot at Hudson and Houston Sts. and is likely to made into a second ballpark across the street from J.J. Walker Park.

The sandhogs expect to get there 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 Place and Madison St.

Another shaft is expected to be built on Ninth Ave. on a little-trafficked street between 13th and 14th Sts.

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 from the street.

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.

The sandhogs currently work two shifts a day, but the city expects to expand to three shortly. The job includes using the mole to carve out the rock, which is a relatively quiet process. Every five feet of tunnel dug out produces enough rocks to fill a train of about 60 feet long. The train is then transported 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. The smaller 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.”