Everything that is man made was made by men. But we usually don’t look at rising skyscrapers and marvel at the workers – electricians, boiler makers, door buckers, glaziers, ironworkers, lathers, rough carpenters, finishing carpenters, marble cutters, mail chute installers, plumbers, sprinkler installers, steamfitters, tin-knockers, tile workers, pipe fitters, bolters, heaters, catchers, buckers-up, and riveters – who risk their lives constructing the buildings we work and live in. Thirty-seven of every hundred-thousand ironworkers – men who work their hands in steel on tall buildings and bridges – are killed on the job. Most die by going “over the side” – falling or being pushed from the structure they’re working on. One out of fifteen ironworkers is killed within ten years of entering the trade; it’s the sixth most fatal job in America. If he survives the first decade of work, an ironworker has five years more on average before knees, legs, hands or arms give out. He’ll retire in his forties, a worn out, scarred and ache-ridden old man, with hunched back, missing fingers, and limping gait.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Dan Permit.
In the years since that night I’ve tried to remember what l thought about on the way home, but I’ve never been sure I’ve got it right. I’ve told the story of what happened on that job often, when out drinking with other ironworkers and into the miasma of fatalism that sometimes takes hold, and I’ve usually presented Patrick’s remarks about it being a “bad” job as though they constituted an omen. But I don’t really remember if I took them that way. The bare truth is simply that two days after Patrick expressed his distaste for the job, Dan Permit was knocked over the side.
The crane had been brought back to set the cooling tower. “Tower” is rather too grand a word, but the term is used irrespective of the size of the unit. It was simply a cube-shaped frame of light iron about sixteen feet on a side. Its function was to house a water tank, pumps, and related equipment. It was put together on the ground, bolted up and welded, then hoisted atop the building.
A thirty-foot jib had been added to the eighty-foot stick of the crane so that it would be possible to reach in far enough beyond the lip of the roof to place the tower where it belonged, which was well to the rear of the roof. A “jib” is simply an extension. Cranes are counterbalanced, of course, by massive weights fitted to their rear ends, and the farther out the stick is boomed, the less effective is this weight. Placing the tower where it belonged involved being able to boom out to an extreme angle, and Jack, after an argument with the operator, had us drag over a couple of tons of stuff and hang it off the counterweight. With this additional counterbalancing, the operator agreed to make the lift. Patrick was stationed on the edge of the roof as the signalman, since the final placement of the tower was to be so far back that it would be out of the operator’s sight.
The tower was hooked on, and the crane lifted it until it was nearly two-blocked. Once it was up, the crane swung round until it faced directly toward its destination. Patrick then extended his arm with his fist clenched and his thumb pointing down. This means “boom out,” and the operator began easing the boom forward. As the load neared the edge of the roof it of course came lower. Patrick made a twisting motion with his other hand, as though he were driving a screw into the ceiling. This is the signal to “get up” on the load. There were about four feet of space left between the blocks, and the operator began to come up through this distance with the load. He was booming out at the same time – all of this is ordinary procedure – when his cats began to leave the ground. He was no Angie, though (or perhaps the additional weights we’d hung confused his feel for his rig), and things began to happen very quickly. The balance point shot past, and the crane continued going over. He let go the load, but it was too late. The boom struck the edge of the roof, bent, and collapsed. In a sequence that no one was ever able to agree on, the rig went over on its nose, the boom folded over the roof, the cooling tower tore through the rear outside header and plunged to the ground in back of the building, and the cable that had hoisted it snapped. The breaking of the cable must not have happened until the tower had nearly reached the ground, because there were sixty-five feet of it beyond the jib sheave when the inspectors measured it later.
When all this hell broke loose, I ran like a madman for the back of the building. Dan Permit was astride a back header on the third floor, shoving bar joists around to the keel marks I had made for him. The flying cable snaked in a giant diagonal arc, took a turn around a column, and whipped him over the side. He only fell thirty-five feet, but he landed on his head in a pile of rocks that had been removed from the hole. I took one look at him and threw up.
When I finished vomiting, I took off my sweatshirt and pitched it across his face. As I started around the building, I realized that no one else had come around back and that therefore no one else had seen Dan fall. I looked up to see Patrick climbing down the broken boom, which was curled around the roof header and led down to the crane cab at about a fifty-degree angle. Several men were helping the operator out of the rig. There was a lot of noise. As the man was lifted out, Jack kept shouting, “Is he okay?” The man answered for himself that he was. Patrick dropped from the lower end of the boom to the ground, leaned against one of the upturned cats, and lit a cigarette. He shook his head when Jack asked him if he were hurt. Jack looked at me.
I said, “Dan Permit’s dead.” When he just stood there, I shouted at him, “Dead, you slow-witted prick!” He and Dan Pusher, who had come up behind him, took off running toward the back of the building. Patrick pushed himself off the cat and walked slowly after them.
“Not much point in running,” he said, to no one in particular.
It is traditional to take up a collection for the family of a man who has been killed. In Dan Permit’s case, the money came to $212. The local deposited the money to its account and made out a check to the widow for the same amount. Freddy came out to the job and handed the check to me, saying that since I was his partner I should be the one to give it to his wife, and for me to get some sort of card to put it in.
There was insurance coverage through the local, in the amount of $2,500. Since he was not a book man, there was no coverage through the International. Had there been, his estate would have received another $10,000.
Jack, Dan Pusher, Patrick, and I attended the funeral. I tried, while attempting to give the widow the absurd lily-decorated envelope that contained the $212, to make a speech of condolence, but she seemed to hear nothing, nor did she extend her hand. I finally gave it to the elder of the two small girls beside her.
Drinking sessions for the next several days shaped themselves variously as Postmortems, Courts of Inquiry, or Symposia on The Meaning of Life. In the Postmortem phase, one man would begin by remarking that, “He only went thirty, thirty-five feet, the poor prick.” All would nod. “My God, Jack himself went five floors on that job in Syracuse and come out of it wit’ nothin’ more’n a pair of broken legs.” It was mandatory that the next man point out that Dan Permit had landed on his head. Then someone would mention another flop, and swapping tales of who had gone how far when and with what damage might last an hour or more. Inevitably, someone would hold that since he was only a permit man, and a brand new one to boot, he shouldn’t have been put where he could get hurt in the first place. Another man would snort, “And where the hell is there that a man can’t get hurt?” That would open the Court of Inquiry: Should he have been on open iron anyway? Was the lift of a fairly heavy tower with a toy crane inherently unsafe? Why wasn’t the man told to get out of the area while the lift was being made? What caused the tower to drop almost to the ground before the load cable parted? Had the operator done all he could?
I was surprised at the lack of agreement and the murkiness of the answers. Even after an investigation of sorts had been conducted, there was less clarity than passion, and The Meaning of Life stage of a conversation was generally made up of a series of discrete and unattended manifestos. There was lip service to When Your Number’s Up It’s Up, which sometimes arose in abbreviated form as You Never Know, and there was a nodding of heads when one man said that Dan Permit should have kept his job with the railroad. Patrick repeated his desire to finish the job and get out.
The accident was the main subject of conversation for about four days, gradually being replaced by expressions of hostility at the approach of winter.
I finished pushing Dan’s bar joists into place, and once looked over the side at the rocks. Some still bore bloodstains. There was a mound of loose sand two or three feet from where he had landed, but it might just as well have been two or three miles away.
Mike Cherry was an ironworker and writer. He started working in a wire rolling factory and moved to high steel construction, rising to the job of connector, where he worked at the top of construction sites, putting buildings together. On High Steel is one of a very few books by a construction worker about this dangerous job, and all Cherry’s books on ironworkers I’ve read have been fascinating.