By David Stabler
PORTLAND, Ore. (ap) — Stand on the roof of Portland and look down. Way down.
You could die a dozen ways up here. You could slip off the open deck or fall down the elevator shaft.
Cables no thicker than Bic pens run around the deck and keep you safe.
It’s not natural to work up this high unless you’re an ironworker. These days, irownworkers are crawling all over the Park Avenue West Tower, which pokes up behind the downtown Nordstrom and already can be seen from almost any corner of Portland.
Ironworkers swing iron, bully it into place, weld it, bolt it and walk on it with cat-like tread. The only things that stop them are ice, high wind or lightning, which scatters them faster than quitting time.
From the ground, ironworkers look interchangeable in their hard hats and reflector vests. Up close, they radiate swagger. They come off their shifts at 3:30 p.m., tools swaying from their belts, maybe a cigarette hanging from a lip, cracking jokes.
Ironworkers look at the Portland skyline and see their handiwork. They may toil in obscurity, but their work will last long after they’re gone.
“We don’t go to the office,” said veteran ironworker Mark Johnson, “we build it.”
Thus their nickname: cowboys.
Ironworkers such as Johnson and Brian Veelle are a tight group and not chatty. Their work speaks for itself. Why would anyone want to talk to them about their jobs? Put steel in their hands, and they know what to do. Routine. Repetitive. No big deal.
“Way of life,” Johnson said. Veelle nodded. “Starts getting typical after a few floors,” he said.
Part of the job is having a “very healthy respect for heights,” Johnson said. But that takes getting used to.
Working at elevation actually gets easier the higher you go, said Veelle, who has been an ironworker for 24 years. “You can’t focus. You see just what’s in front of you.”
Later, as if to demonstrate, two men saunter along beams little wider than their feet, suspended over nothing. Nylon or steel cables, strong enough to withstand 5,000 pounds of force, tether them to the beams.
“After you do it for a while, it’s like walking on a sidewalk,” said Paul Diaz, once he is back safely on the deck.
When the Park Avenue building is finished in December 2015, it will be the fourth-tallest in Portland, topping out at 501 feet, a third as high as the Empire State Building. Offices, retail and high-end apartments will fill it.
Right now, the building is about half done. The concrete core is complete. Hoop skirts of iron surround the core to the 25th floor. Next come steel decks, concrete floors and fireproofing the beams. Exterior glass has started to enclose the lower floors.
Peril is everywhere, even on the corrugated deck. Wind blows from all directions, capable of lifting a hardhat and landing it blocks away.
And it’s noisy. While the wind moans through the iron latticework, noise echoes off surrounding buildings.
But the ironworkers don’t seem to notice the noise or danger. They yank on beams dangling from a crane with cables thick enough to anchor ocean liners. A welder showers the deck with sparks.
So far, injuries on Park Avenue West have been minor, said both Tim Ellis, dispatcher for Ironworkers Local 29, and Mark Parsons, Hoffman Construction project superintendent. An ironworker smashed a finger, Parsons said.
In 1997, three ironworkers fell to their deaths working on a parking garage at Portland International Airport. A four-story section of iron framework collapsed, pulling the three workers, who were tied in, down with it. A fourth worker, untethered, survived after jumping clear of the collapsing structure.
Injuries are expected, Johnson said. “Broken fingers, mashed fingers, broken bones. At some point in time you’re going to get hurt doing this job.”
As for working in rain and cold, that is Oregon. “If we didn’t work in bad weather, it’d never get built,” Johnson said. “It’s hard work, but we can’t see doing anything else.”
When his colleagues put the last beam in place sometime next spring, they’ll have a top-out party and lash an evergreen tree to the top beam as a symbol of unity. Workers will sign the beam and add the names of anyone who died on the job.
“This is a cool one to go out on,” Johnson said. “A big one like this.”