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Great heights: Quad-City iron workers are building new I-74 bridge

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The bartender hustled over with a cup of warm water — a tea bag on the saucer, lemon wedges and honey in a bear-shaped bottle on the side.

The cold-weather remedy is kept on hand behind the bar at Parkside Grill & Lounge for some of the iron workers who stop in after their shifts. Building the new Interstate 74 bridge, just a couple blocks north of the Parkside, the workers sometimes need help thawing out.

"She knows what I order," Josh Rangel said as his tea was delivered to his table. "The warm stuff helps my throat."

A few layers of shirts, pants and socks help with the rest of him.

Rangel, 38, is a union steward for Rock Island-based Iron Workers Local 111.

And he has a bridge to build.

Local locals on the job

Of the 200-or-so iron workers with Local 111, about 60 of them are helping build the new Interstate 74 bridge.

By spring, the job will likely call up many more from the Local's pool.

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About 60 local iron workers are assigned to the new Interstate 74 bridge. That number will more than double in the spring. The workers are ferried to areas of the work site by boats and, sometimes, barge tows.

Replacing the current bridge with one that will be twice its width is a multi-year undertaking. The project's $1.2 billion price tag includes improvements to the connected corridors, such as the expanded interstate lanes in Moline. But the construction of the bridge itself is what's captivating Quad-Citians.

One group from Local 111 has been working on the river and building bridge parts out of the "bone yard" on the Moline shoreline for more than 18 months. Others, like Rangel, came to the job this summer and are working directly for the primary contractor, Wisconsin-based Lunda Construction.

"Our crew was hired to do the arch," Rangel said of the "basket-handle design" that will rise 164 feet above both spans of the new crossing. Getting the arch built is critical to the construction timeline. Without it, concrete cannot be poured on large portions of the driving surface of the westbound span, which is scheduled to open to traffic late fall.

While several floods affected construction, the bridge has remained on schedule. But recent snowfall and below-zero temperatures are complicating conditions in the work zone.

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Many of the jobs being done by iron workers from Rock Island-based Local 111 are performed high above the Mississippi River. They are responsible for the proper placement of tons of rebar, which is the green rods seen in this photo and throughout the project area.

"Some of the boats can't get us out to the site, and they're using (barge) tows to get through the ice pack," said Rangel, a Davenport native. "Every time we get snow, we have to spend a lot of time getting rid of it, clearing it away. We use shovels, salt, brooms and leaf blowers.

"I don't mind working in the dark. It's the slipperiness that can get to you."

Catching a bus on the river

For many months, iron workers have been twisting and braiding rebar into sturdy molds to hold concrete, resulting in caissons, footings, piers and the platforms from which the arches will rise.

The driving surfaces will require thousands more tons of neatly threaded rebar — work that isn't nearly as interesting to some iron workers as the work done on and in the water. Supplying rebar, which is short for reinforcing bar, can be tedious and tiring on long stretches of bridge decking, because iron workers spend their days bent over.

But it's not as dangerous, nor as challenging as other aspects of the build.

"When we're setting girders, for example, you've got the crane on one end, which picks the piece you're setting," said Mike Olvera, an East Moline native and also a Local 111 iron worker and a foreman for the bridge. "So, there's the crane on one end and eight or 10 guys on the other, pushing the piece where it goes."

Iron worker Terry Dimick moved to the Quad-Cities from Michigan nearly 30 years ago and is a job steward for 111. "That's where the craftsmanship comes from, figuring out how to push the iron through to where it goes," he said.

And what about working directly beneath giant pieces of iron and steel that hang from a crane? The iron workers must have considerable faith in the crane operators who "pick" (as in pick up) the pieces they need?

"Every time I'm part of a pick, my heart is racing," Olvera said.

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Iron workers spend a considerable amount of their time on the new Interstate 74 bridge climbing and manipulating rebar into precise configurations. They build mold-like frames into which concrete is poured for piers, footings, bridge decking and other structural components.

Then there are the heights, the weather, the water, the tools and the risk. Though iron workers' goal is to be tied off to something 100 percent of the time to prevent a fall, it's not always possible to achieve that goal.

"As the saying goes, ‘Iron workers go where no one has gone before,’ " Olvera said. “That's because we're literally building as we go. There's not always something to tie off to."

Olvera and Dimick are working for PJR Construction, which is based in southern Illinois. From the time Olvera started on the bridge in September 2017, he's been putting in mostly six 10-hour days, beginning at sunrise.

"We get picked up by three or four boats each morning — seven or eight guys per boat," Olvera said. "It's basically like a bus. They drop you off at your pier."

In all, he said, there are more than a dozen boats in the work zone on any given day, provided the Mississippi isn't frozen. For many months, the iron workers were ferried to the platforms they built for the arches, and they were impressed by the boat captains who navigated in such a tight workspace that's being constantly hammered by current.

"Most of the operators, including those running the boats out here, use the same hand signals we do," Olvera said. "If I don't know 'em, I will get to know 'em. They have my life in their hands."

Describing what they do

One of the jokes of the trade among iron workers is that rebar has heat in it.

Of course, the thousands of 180-pound rods that give the bridge structure most of its strength are not heated. But once you start working with it, Olvera and Dimick said, you warm right up.

The trick to working with rebar, the men said, is to make it work within the precise designs and specifications of the engineers who provide the blue prints. While iron workers are the experts at manipulating rebar, they have to do so in exact accordance with the bridge plans.

"The real magic is the guy who reads the prints and knows what has to happen," Dimick said, motioning to Olvera, whose job is to make sure the plans are followed. "The specs tell you the distance between each piece of rebar. To be sure, everything we do is inspected. We have a good relationship with the inspectors."

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Millions of tons of rebar, or reinforced bar, is going into the new Interstate 74 bridge. About 150 iron workers from Rock Island-based Local 111 will spend several years manipulating the rebar into precise configurations to give the span its strength.

Olvera credits the quality of iron work that has gone into the bridge so far to the training his team got from Local 111.

"Our work on the westbound span really went off without a hitch," he said. "There's no changing the engineers' plan. We have to make it work.

"Our 111 has taught its members very well. We are educated and trained before they'll let us out there. We're like a brotherhood of teachers, passing down knowledge and skills, so we exceed in this dangerous field."

Without the iron workers, there is no bridge: It will sit on piers that are supported by caissons, which are cylindrical foundation supports that are drilled deep into the river's bedrock. The bridge requires 237 caissons, which were made by iron workers. Eight caissons are needed for most of the piers' footings, and the piers' insides are filled with rebar. The bridge deck then will rest on the piers, and those surfaces also get their strength from iron worker-supplied rebar.

To leave their mark, Olvera and Dimick said, they write their names and those of family members on pieces of rebar and elsewhere on the structure — even though most everything will be covered in concrete and paint.

"I'll always be able to drive across the bridge and know I was in there, and I know everybody else who was in there," Olvera said.

About those arches

For many months, the project engineer for the new I-74 bridge, Danielle Alvarez, of the Iowa Department of Transportation, has been talking about the complexity of the bridge arches.

The chief challenge is getting the two sides to meet in the middle, which Alvarez said requires "extraordinary precision."

The arch piers that were fabricated and erected by iron workers have to angle precisely, so the attached sections of arch are directed over the river in the proper trajectory.

But the first sections cannot be added until the bearings are in place. Also built by iron workers, the bearings are the anchors for the arch pieces, and each side of the arch requires four bearings. In all, eight bearings were built, and templates of the pieces came before them.

The bearings look like large squares of concrete with stainless steel spikes sticking out from underneath with the upper portion encased in rebar.

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This odd-looking structure contains the base for the basket-handle design arches that will rise nearly 200 feet above the Mississippi River on the new Interstate 74 bridge.

On the outer face of the bearings are plates, which will provide the attaching surface for the arch pieces. The plates imbedded into the bearings will be milled to the perfect angle — within one-hundredth of an inch, Alvarez said, and the work will be done by a contractor who specializes in the technique.

Iron can expand or contract with changing temperatures, so cables are tied to neighboring piers, and they can be pulled or loosened to make minor tweaks to the angle of the arch pieces. Suspension cables will forever be a part of the bridge's anatomy and carry most of the structure's load.

But cables from the neighboring bridge piers will not provide sufficient support during the arch raising, so two 200-foot tall towers were added to either side of the arch piers. The temporary towers were put together by iron workers.

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Built by iron workers from Rock Island-based Local 111, this is one of eight bearings, four for each span, that will serve as anchors for the arches on the new Interstate 74 bridge. They will sit inside the top of the arch piers.

On a freezing Monday morning at the end of January, Rangel was lifted to the top of the towers in a basket — about 230 feet above the surface of the Mississippi — to release the cranes that were used to raise them.

In a cell phone photo, Rangel, straddling the top of the pier as he disconnected the crane, is smiling broadly from under his hard hat as fog surrounds him. The construction platforms on the river below are barely visible.

Asked whether such work is hard on the nerves, Rangel replied, "It's very peaceful up there."

The builds before the builds

Cranes don't put themselves together.

The 341-foot crane that has arrived for the erection of the arches was delivered in 45 sections of boom. It was put together by iron workers and a couple of "oilers," the name given to the people who assist and provide backup to crane operators.

As the base and housing of the crane sat on a barge, the crew of iron workers and oilers added more and more sections of boom from the shoreline. As the crane got longer, the crew instructed the barge's tow operator to move it farther out into the water.

The crane will require a custom-made picking beam to fetch arch sections. The beam has eyelets for the crane harness, but it also has a special feature: As arch pieces are picked, one end of the beam can be raised or lowered, so the pieces can be set down at varying angles.

Rangel said he also has been building planks to walk on as arch pieces are raised. At some point, though, somebody is going to have to go inside the long pieces of iron that form the arch.

"There's no welding to connect those pieces," Rangel said. "It's all bolts."

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Two 200-foot towers were shipped to the construction site of the new Interstate 74 bridge to support the erection of the arches. They arrived in 100-foot sections, were put together by iron workers, who then were lifted to the top to disconnect the towers from the cranes that raised them.

Each connection will contain between 1,000 and 2,000 bolts, he said, and an iron worker must go inside with a torque wrench to tighten the bolts.

"It's way up there, but I'm used to that, because I've been on top of wind turbines that are 360 feet," Rangel said. "It's the type of work — a trade — that's not cut out for a lot of people.

"We never work alone, because it's too dangerous. I tell the apprentices they should never go anywhere they're not comfortable, because that's how you get hurt. The only dumb question is the one you don't ask. If you don't know what you're doing, walking out on that icy iron isn't proving nothing."

How safe is it?

Many of the people building the new I-74 bridge have little time to do anything else.

"I work, eat, shower and sleep," Rangel said. "That's about all I have time for."

To endure the frigid cold and wind on and above the Mississippi River, he said, iron workers have differing choices of protection. He chooses blue jean bib overalls over top of insulated jeans with long underwear as the first layer. He then wears an Under Armor shirt under a turtle neck, which then is covered in a long-sleeved T-shirt and a hooded sweatshirt. Finally, he wears "church socks" (men's dress socks) under thermal socks.

Olvera and Dimick say they prefer the summer work season over winter, because extreme heat is easier to tolerate.

All the work crews must participate in routine "Man Overboard Drills," and life jackets are mandatory at all times.

"That's not negotiable," Dimick said.

He said he "never has gone in" the water by accident, and Olvera said he's "never been close to falling in."

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Iron workers with Rock Island-based Local 111 have spent more than a year helping to build the new Interstate 74 bridge between Bettendorf and Moline.

In all, the pair likely will spend nearly four years building the bridge and its related connections.

"They've been talking about building this thing for 20, 30 years," Olvera said. "You get to know it so well when you're working, because it becomes your stomping grounds. To step back and look though, it's breathtaking."

He said he has seen several motor-vehicle accidents on the bridge while working adjacent to it, and he and Dimick said there are enjoyable scenes on the water, including the summertime Floatzilla event.

"When people honk, I try to wave," Dimick said. "There's not always a lot of time for that, though. We keep things very safe, but there is natural wear-and-tear to the work. You can always tell a structural guy from a rebar guy.

"The structural guys tend to lose digits, and the rebar guys are the ones all bent over."

The celebrity of bridge-building

At least one iron worker came out of retirement, because he didn't want to miss being a part of the new bridge. Some others left jobs they were working on a little early, because they didn't want to miss the chance to help build it.

"I get questions about it from everybody," Dimick said. "My wife kind of brags about it because the bridge is so iconic."

Rangel said his girlfriend works at a doctor's office, and her co-workers are "always asking" about the latest on the bridge construction.

But one person in Rangel's family doesn't have to ask.

His dad, Gerald Rangel, was "busting rebar" on the current I-74 bridge nearly 50 years ago. He was an apprentice for Local 111 in 1971 when he went to work on the reconstruction of the toll plaza when the toll booths were removed, and the interstate expansion occurred.

"When I first started, the bridge ended in Moline, and there was a sidewalk to Bettendorf," the senior Rangel said. "There was scaffold on the Iowa side, and we'd climb up and walk the bridge deck to where we were working. They tore out the sidewalk, and there was quite a bit of rebar work to do."

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Gerald Rangel, left, and his son, Josh Rangel, stand in front of the Interstate 74 bridge at Leach Park in Bettendorf. Josh is an iron worker with Local #111 and currently is working on the new Interstate 74 bridge, and Gerald was an apprentice with Local #111 when he worked on the existing bridge in 1971.

The first abutment near the shoreline in Moline was torn out at that time, the girders and beams on the Iowa side had to be reworked, and the iron workers replaced the expansion plates on both towers, he said.

"We worked when it was below zero, and there's nothing on that bridge to block the wind," he said. "Safety was a joke. Going into Bettendorf, they hung a safety net, but that was the only place they put one. When anybody came to take pictures, we had to go over and stand by the nets.

"One of the carpenters threw a chunk of concrete over, and it went right through that net."

Though bridge-building safety has made considerable strides, and he has faith in his son's abilities, Gerald Rangel said he knows the risks.

"Oh, you always worry," he said. "It could be someone else's fault, and somebody's always going to get hurt.

"Freak accidents happen. It's always in the back of your mind, and I do worry about him. But I was always proud to be an iron worker, and I'm proud of my son, too. I'm glad he's out there."

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