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Pirates Workers proud of what they have wrought

Sunday, April 15, 2001

By Jim McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ironworker Bill Stephens stood outside Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy's box above home plate at PNC Park and pointed to a set of neatly spaced screws holding up the luxury suite's glass wall.

His right arm waved past hundreds of other aluminum and glass windows glistening in the sun, the park's elaborately-connected structural girders and miles of metal railings separating the stadium's seats from the playing field.

"Ironworkers put all of this in. And we do it right," Stephens said with the satisfaction apparent in his voice. "I'm proud that this is in our city."

Stephens, 61, has traveled the country in the four decades since he started in the trade as a riveter on the Civic Arena (now Mellon Arena) and he said PNC Park is one of the nicest stadiums he's ever seen. Jack Ralicki, an ironworker who has worked alongside Stephens for seven years, nodded in agreement

"We all feel the same," Ralicki said. "It's a true testimony to the building trades in Pittsburgh, how well they work together under adverse conditions. It shows union building trades are still proficient, real competitors."

Roughly 2,500 construction workers from all sorts of trades spent nearly two years turning 15.5 million pounds of steel and 42,500 cubic feet of concrete into a gleaming new ball park. They built two restaurants, three club lounges, installed 38,000 seats, 3,361 doors, 19 elevators, eight escalators, seven miles of hand railings and many miles more of piping, sheet metal and wiring.

There were some injuries, none too serious; overall it was a safe project.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration presented Dick Corp., the construction manager, with a merit award for its safety practices.

"Everybody worked hard. Everybody worked together. They want this thing to succeed," plumber Dan Costello said as he took a coffee break. "There's some real craftsmanship here."

Ironworker Pat Kearney took particular pride in working on PNC Park since his late father, Henry, worked as an ironworker on Three Rivers Stadium three decades earlier. A frequent visitor to seven-year-old Jacobs Field in Cleveland, Kearney said Pittsburgh's new stadium is better, no disrespect intended.

"A lot of the guys are proud and happy to work on this project," added Ken Broadbent, business manager of Steamfitters Local 449. "It's history."

The project provided jobs for union bricklayers, carpenters, cement masons, elevator constructors, electricians, floor coverers, ironworkers, laborers, operating engineers, painters, plumbers, sheet metal workers, sprinkler fitters, steamfitters and more.

"Frankly, it's our crown jewel. It's solid masonry, our nicest product," Tim Walker, of Bricklayers & Allied Crafts Local 9, said. "I'm a little prejudiced but it came out better than we expected."

Because they built it, construction workers got to roam through parts of PNC Park that many fans will never see, such as the nicely-appointed Pirates' locker room done in beautiful hardwood, the not-as-nice visitors' quarters done in pine, luxury box suites and the physical plant.

Tom Lennon, a steamfitter who had a hand in installing some of the park's internal systems, carried a pocket camera with him as he and hundreds of other workers raced against the clock in the final days before its opening.

"It's been a pleasure coming to work, a privilege," Lennon said as he showed off the park to visitors with the enthusiasm of a new home owner, taking photos as he went. "I'll tell you what. When people get here, they're going to have fun."

Of course, putting the park together wasn't the kind of fun spectators can hope to have with the start of the major league baseball season. The construction work spanned two winters and there was no escaping the blustery wind coming off the Allegheny River.

The site is tight, bounded by roads and a river, sometimes making it difficult to marshal the materials used to build the park, which went up from the inside out. The construction schedule was tight too.

"It was hectic. The schedule was so intense. Every day was a fight," Tom Bigley, of Plumbers Union Local 27, said as construction wound down. "It was a test of patience, I would say."

The pressure of rushing to finish the project occasionally surfaced.

"For me it's just been horrific," Joe Wyse, a carpenter who was running one of two crews installing seats and bleachers, said with a bit of a smile in mid-March. "It's consuming. You're fighting a deadline, trying to keep the men's morale up, trying to keep them motivated to produce."

Wyse is no baseball fan. He calls it an antiquated game and he criticized the public funding used for PNC Park and the Steelers' stadium going up down river despite taxpayers' rejection of a referendum to pay for them. But like everyone else on the job, he was glad for the work.

"And it's beautiful," he said. "Plus they tell me this is the most technologically-advanced stadium in the world. There's over a thousand speakers here. The speakers are everywhere."

The projects' supporters see it as a catalyst for more work. They envision office buildings, restaurants, stores, taverns and parking garages going up around the stadiums. The Carnegie Science Center is going to expand.

Construction on the David L. Lawrence Convention Center expansion and Seagate's new research center in the Strip District are under way. There are more projects planned for the old LTV Corp. site on the South Side and construction unions are keeping fingers crossed for additional development at Pittsburgh International Airport.

"If it hadn't been for Plan B I think the area would have died," John McManus, business manager of Construction General Laborers Union Local 373, said. "There's a lot more coming."

Next: Columnist Bob Smizik: How to make the new park the place to be

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