The high of fixing City Hall

Veteran construction workers call it spongy knees.It's the shaky feeling first-timers get when they inch along the scaffolding outside Richmond's City Hall as high as 17 floors.Some keep a kung fu-like grip on the railing.

Others lock their eyes on the building and refuse to look over the edge.

The heights don't bother Nagash "Gash" James. He's used to it. James is one of the many workers hammering the failing marble panels off the building.

"I haven't met a height yet that I'm scared of - not yet," James said as he took a break from dumping heavy marble scraps into a cart.

James is a survivor at Richmond-based Virginia Glass Installation Inc. Since work began in July of last year, the company has gone through 30 employees. Some disappeared through attrition. The rest couldn't cut it. The dizzying heights and exhausting work were too much.

No surprise. The company's task is challenging. It must remove more than 23,000 marble panels, each weighing from 150 to 200 pounds.

Virginia Glass has removed more than half so far. They are being replaced with more durable steel and aluminum panels.

James and his colleagues demonstrated their work last week. First, two men pried off the panels or smashed them with sledgehammers. Second, they handed the pieces to two other men waiting below. Third, the second line of workers handed the pieces to James and a co-worker, who dropped them into bins and hammered them into smaller parts.

Hot and cold weather have caused the panels to bow and crack since City Hall was built in 1972. Two fell off the building during the 1980 Memorial Day weekend. Fiberglass straps have kept many of the remaining slabs from coming off.

The company originally planned to remove the panels intact. But that process was too time-consuming. And the weather has weakened many of them, making it impossible to keep them whole. Squeezing some of the pieces makes them crumble.

Most of the marble is ending up in the dump. Some insistent Richmonders have salvaged pieces for souvenirs and home-improvement projects.

No one has been seriously hurt removing the marble - just a few scrapes, bumps and bruises.

"You have to be careful. The stone fights back sometimes," James said.

James is a stocky, broad-shouldered 28-year-old, whose nickname "Gash" is tattooed on his right forearm. His hard work is evident in his fading black boots. Their steel toes poke through the worn footwear.

James' foreman is Frankie Thomas, 23, a 6-foot-2-inch tower who wields a sledgehammer like a little mallet. He has a rock-star look about him with wild hair, thick sideburns and a bushy beard.

"You have to be a man to come out here," Thomas said. "The marble - she gets heavy after a while."

Thomas' older brother, Marco, owns the company. The two work well together, despite being family. Like most brothers do, they fought growing up. But they also grew close. Frankie cried when Marco left home for Virginia Tech, where he played defensive tackle on a scholarship.

One inch taller than Frankie, Marco, 30, is a bear of a man, 280 pounds. The ear piercings from his college days have almost healed over. He has a scythe-shaped scar on his left hand. It's a reminder of the piece of glass a co-worker accidentally dropped on him a few years ago.

Marco's crews ride up and down the outside of City Hall on an orange hoist, a cagelike elevator known for its bumpy ride.

Marco said the trick to dealing with the heights is time. The workers eventually get used to it. Plus, the scaffolding gives them a 4-foot-wide workspace.

"I enjoy the heights. Really," Marco said. "The best part of it was the [marble] removal on the observation deck. You just had the best view from up there."

His brother has something else in his thoughts as he works - his growing strength.

"We are getting a workout for free," he said.

Marco quickly inserted something else that should be on his brother's mind: "And also safety."

Frankie: "Yeah. Safety."

Workers have hung black netting around the scaffolding to prevent marble chunks from falling on pedestrians. Marco's crews also use plywood shields to deflect the bits of marble from the windows.

The safety precautions, heat and hard work take their toll on Marco's employees.

"Sometimes I forget to take a shower and lie down and don't wake up until the next morning," Frankie said.

James has had similar experiences. He said he has fallen asleep on GRTC buses on his way home to his wife, Angel, and four young children. Bus drivers who have become familiar with James rouse him when he reaches his stop in South Richmond's Oak Grove.

James looks forward to getting off work. Awaiting him at home is his PlayStation 2 video game system and his 2-year-old son and playmate, Nathaniel.

600450 The high of fixing City Hall
Date: 17 August 2004

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