New Heights

New Heights

Gabriel Baird
Sun Staffer

Robert Adams III checked his safety harness as he was swung over the edge of the westbound Bay Bridge in a hip-deep bucket about the size of a bathtub.

More than 180 feet below, seagulls looked like white marbles rolling on the choppy water. Although a supervisor had said it was 35 feet long, the rescue boat looked no bigger than his hand.

Adams squeezed the rim of the bucket. “I’m on the ground,” he said to himself, trying to calm his nerves.

But Adams, 24, wasn’t on the ground this day; he was up in the air proving himself to his new employer, the Maryland Transportation Authority.

To keep his job, he must complete a series of tests within a year to show the agency he has the courage and agility to work so high above the water.

For Adams, this meant spending about 90 minutes on a recent Thursday in a 63,000-pound machine called the Snooper, a truck with a long arm and a bucket for two that can reach from the surface of the bridge down under the deck so workers can lubricate its expansion joints.

It’s work that has to be done, but not everyone wants to do it. But when you have a family to support, you do funny things. Like take a job that requires walking up the suspension cable to the top of the bridge’s tower, more than 350 feet above the Chesapeake Bay. Like climbing aboard a scary machine called the Snooper when you’ve been afraid of heights for as long as you could remember.

While growing up in Baltimore, Adams had experienced the liberating rush of learning to ride a bike, but all these years later, what he remembered most clearly was falling.

The fear had been with him so many summers at the swimming pool. While other boys had shown off by jumping from the high dive, Adams had stuck to the lower board.

But of all his boyhood brushes with heights, his scariest had been on a roller coaster around age 10. Plunging toward the ground, Adams had closed his eyes, clutched the panic bar and not felt safe until the ride had stopped.

Now that he was older, he could not just grab hold of something steady and close his eyes.

Being a man required more.

He and his wife, Moira, were raising a 2-year-old daughter and an infant son.

The night shift in a warehouse hadn’t cut it, so he had applied to the transportation authority, where his father had worked in a tunnel for going on four years. He had thought a tunnel would be a fine place to work, but the authority’s next opening had been on the bridge.

It offered better pay and benefits. He could work the day shift, then babysit while his wife took night classes. The job would be good for the family.

Regardless of how he felt about heights, he had had to take it.

Now Adams was in the bucket with Snooper Operator Joe Wachter Sr.

The 47-year-old son of a bridge builder, Wachter was anything but afraid of heights. After a work-related fall had ended his career as an iron worker a few years ago, he had taken the job working for the authority. Still, his trust in the Snooper was absolute.

It reached down under the bridge, shuddering when the wind blew and trembling when heavy trucks thundered across the bridge overhead. Worst of all for Adams, the bucket shook when it moved – and it had to be moved to reach every expansion joint that he was helping to lubricate.

The joints had contracted nearly 2 inches since the hottest days of summer, scraping the silver paint on their sides so deep that maroon primer showed in places.

New grease would keep the movement from scraping the steel bare and exposing it to the corrosive sea air.

Adams crouched in the bucket to reach the lock-blade and handed it to Wachter.

The older man stuck the knife’s blade in the void beneath the beam that held the bridge’s deck and scraped out last year’s grease.

“That was white grease, see,” he said, showing the gritty brown-black stuff on the knife. “It gets hard with the salt and weather and dirt.”

After he caulked on fresh grease, it was time to position the bucket under the next joint.

This was never easy. There was almost always something in the way – H-beams, box girders, the catwalk, vertical and diagonal supports.

Wachter pushed levers to rotate, bend and extend the arm to move the bucket into place beneath the bridge.

Extending was the slowest, least frightening movement. But it was deceptive. The farther the arm was extended, the more violently the bucket shook as it was moved.

By the time it extended across the full width of the bridge, it was shakier than ever.

Having cut between the supports on the first side of the bridge, having gone under the catwalk, now the bucket had to fit through a triangle formed by a diagonal and a horizontal support. But the bucket was too high.

Wachter nudged the lever to lower it. The bucket dropped.

Adams, feeling the sensation of falling, seized the sides of the bucket as it bounced. He felt his heart race.

Squeezing the lip of the bucket with his hands, he pushed his feet down to the plastic floor beneath him until his legs went numb.

The bucket was still too high.

Wachter tapped the lever. A bit more. He tapped the lever. A bit more.

“Is he going to … hit the bridge?” Adams asked himself.

Wachter tapped the lever.

It smacked a girder, trembled, rocked, wavered.

Adams spread his feet. He lowered his weight. His heart fell into his belly. It was down there, pounding, as though it wanted out of him as much as he wanted out of the bucket.

He was so unreasonably high above the water. He felt unsafe. Would rather be on the ground. At home. With his family.

The bouncing slowed to a bob. The swinging eased to a shiver. The arm held.

The Snooper could take it, the movement, a bump now and again. It was not going to break. He was not going to fall. That changed things.

He still didn’t like the machine. But he could trust it. And if he could trust it, he could work another day. And another.

“I’ll get used to it,” he said. “It’s better off not to worry.”