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Cover Story
One Man's View
By Patty Sullivan

As carpenter foreman on the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, Paul K. Phelps at age 47 is as lean and fit as they come. Working eleven hour days, six days a week was the norm. Many times he worked 13 to 17 hour days for weeks at a time. On the jobsite, he was respectfully known by fellow workers as Jethro.

Jethro has worked in places colder and hotter than Black Canyon. Although he knew the working conditions would be extreme, he had never worked in a place where there was such an extreme between the two. In winter, temperatures were in the 30’s. However, with intense winds coming off Lake Mead and the Colorado River, it felt more like zero. Summer days frequently hit 115 degrees in the shade. Most days, there was little shade to be found. With the release of heat that had absorbed into equipment and the canyon walls and heat given off by the curing concrete, ambient temperatures were in excess of 130 degrees. In winter Jethro couldn’t wear enough layers to cut the chill of the wind, and in summer it was difficult to protect himself from the heat. Consuming mass amounts of water was the only way to stay the course of the summer workday. With all this, Jethro thrived on the job. He loved the rugged terrain, the beauty of the river, and the views of Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.

A critical task Jethro was in charge of was managing the traveler. A traveler is a 140 ton form system that containes 180 tons of concrete until the concrete cures enough that the travler can launch forward and pour another segment of the arch. In most cases, as it was during the construction of Hoover Dam, the crane operator often didn’t have visual sight of the many critical and maximum pick loads. Operating by radios slowly and meticulously to place the loads, there was no room for error. Jethro’s and the other foreman’s job was to make sure there was no error.

Projects of this nature are always dangerous. Typically, it is the nature of the work that puts one at risk. However on this job, the forces of nature caused the greatest threat. In September 2006, winds in Black Canyon were blowing in excess of 90 mph. To prevent damage, Jethro’s crew secured equipment before leaving their shift. Walking to the construction trailer, he noticed traffic was heavy on the road below.

Crews met in the construction trailer to discuss safety precautions for bringing on the second shift. Ten minutes later, they could hear the tower cranes collapsing; the screech of crumpling metal, the thud of heavy cables falling to the ground, crunching sounds as the cables crushed cars just twenty feet outside the trailer door. Had cables landed on the trailer, some may have died that day. The second shift was preparing to go out on the job site. Had the collapse of the cranes been ten minutes earlier or ten minutes later, dozens of workmen would have been in harm’s way.

In the calm of the storm, there was one man unaccounted for. Finding him was a priority. Within the first few minutes of the cranes collapsing, it was clear; there were no life threatening injuries and no one lost their life in the accident. The fact that no cars were involved and no lives were lost in the day’s tragic event, in Jethro’s words, “Was an absolute miracle.”

While working on the project, Jethro took time to visit his mother. On a visit he learned that he had a great, great, uncle who worked on Hoover Dam. Jethro was the only person who worked on the construction of the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge with a family member who worked on the construction of Hoover Dam.

Typically on a bridge, dangerous jobs such as stress, maximum crane picks and working in the blind are not an everyday occurrence. On this bridge they were. Jethro assures us that there is no other concrete arch bridges built any stronger or more resilient than the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. And for this, we are grateful.

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