Here's what you do the first time you reach the tiny pinnacle of a bridge pylon 200 feet above Big Muddy.
You clamp on. You fight vertigo. You pray for no wind.
Then you fish for your cellphone and take a snapshot of the view.
That's what electricians Chad Foote of Council Bluffs and Bill Heverly of Omaha did the first time they climbed the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge for a $310,000 fixer-upper that has the bridge closed on weekdays until Thanksgiving.
The project includes a new 54-light LED system, better lightning protection and improved safety features for the future spidermen who must brave the heights and the elements to keep the iconic structure, well, iconic.
The $22 million bridge, designed by Kansas City firm HNTB, opened to great fanfare in September 2008. The LED lighting system near the top of the pylons was donated by Gallup and the Suzanne and Walter Scott Foundation.
But the lights never worked properly, said City Parks and Recreation Director Brook Bench. He said there's no way to really know why, but they might have been struck by lightning.
“They worked for about one week,” he said.
Omaha maintains the bridge but uses a fund that draws from the cities of Omaha and Council Bluffs.
A/C Lightning Protection of West Point, Neb., is adding “air terminals” or lightning-rod protectors atop the bridge pylons, said Steve Schwer, project manager for the company. Schwer said his workers then run girders from the air terminals to the ground near the bridge.
Omaha/Iowa Electric, the general contractor for the project, is handling the new lighting system. It required running new fiber-optic cable from the ground up each pylon. It is requiring the removal of all 54 existing LED lights, 27 on each pylon. The new lights, which will dance, change colors and be programmable, will be installed in the next week or so.
LED is short for light-emitting diode, a lighting technology that is praised for longer lifespan and relatively low energy use. The technology has improved in four years' time, resulting in what should be a brighter, more colorful bridge at night, said Peter Osentoski of Omaha/Iowa Electric. The lights will be angled differently, which should better illuminate the bridge, he said.
So how many people does it take to change these 54 lights?
Start with the Wednesday crew: a three-man electrician team led by foreman Heverly and a three-man ironworker team from subcontractor Moen Steel. The ironworkers are improving worker safety features by adding a heavy steel plate with more places that workers can clamp on to and ways for rescues to take place should the need arise. The ladders will also be extended downward so they can be reached by portable extension ladders, not hydraulic lifts.
Each crew took a pylon, with one man on the ground, one man in a hydraulic lift 80 feet in the air and one man either on the ladder that starts 60 feet up the pylon and continues to its crown or on the crown itself.
Simply watching them from the gently swaying bridge deck on a windless day could make one's legs turn to jelly. Up is not the typical direction one looks when on this bridge. Normally, it's down at the fast-moving brown waters of the Missouri River.
These men, nimble as cats and seemingly fearless, aw-shucksed the height when they had descended. Yes, they're lugging some 50 pounds of gear. Yes, it's high up there. Yes, the sway is about four to five inches. Yes, it's not fun when the wind blows as it did Tuesday when gusts forced them down.
“We're all trained to climb,” said the 35-year-old Heverly. “The first time up was a little ... shifty. After that it was fine. Now I don't even think about it.”
Heverly snapped a cellphone shot of the view on his first ascent and then quickly got to work. So did Foote, who spent Wednesday atop the east pylon on the Iowa side where there isn't much room to maneuver.
“I try to focus on one spot up there,” Foote said, “and not look around a whole lot.”
Tim Carmichael, who oversees construction for the city, was a bird on a wire in his younger days. Overseeing the work Wednesday, he said “that's for the young guys.”
Then he added: “It's quite a rush when you're up there, and swing over the edge.”
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