A selfish man protects himself; a selfless man protects himself so he can protect those he loves.
The gusty wind and dizzying views found 1,100 feet above the ground would make most men nervous. But the Skyboys were used to it. To them, working with and walking on steel girders nearly a quarter mile up in the air was child’s play. In fact, the Skyboys, as they later became known, made light of the danger they were in 12 hours a day. There were no safety harnesses. There were no hard hats. There were no guarantees. All there was was the job.
In August of 1930, the steel frame of the Empire State Building was nearing completion. It would take another nine months to finish construction, but for the steelworkers who were tasked with building the frame of the iconic structure, their work was nearly done.
Victor Westergaard quietly closed his front door while his wife and three sons slept inside the small Brooklyn apartment that had been home since he and Alma married. Normally, she would be awake to see him off before work, but yesterday’s potluck dinner at St. Paul’s stretched long into the evening, and Victor insisted that she sleep in until the boys needed to wake for school. With his lunch pail in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, he hustled to catch the train that would take him into Manhattan. The crisp dawn air felt good on his skin. He always preferred to be outdoors, and those first few minutes in the early morning when he was able to escape the stale, static air of his apartment were his favorite.
About 15 miles away on the same morning, Maurice Flynn also got himself ready for his commute into work. Big Mo, so nicknamed because of his tall stature, was anxious to get away from the cacophony of young voices emanating from the kitchen of his crowded, yet tidy, walkup in the Bronx. His wife, Eleanor, tried to mitigate the wails of hungry children with oatmeal and small portions of codfish cakes. Even though Eleanor was an expert at stretching Mo’s paycheck, it might be the only meat they ate today.
George S. Buckley Jr. would only answer to the name “Buck.” At 20 years old, he was already an experienced riveter and often boasted that he could do his job blindfolded and upside down, a claim no one dared challenge him, lest he actually try it. Buck lived in the South Bronx with his parents but was engaged to a lovely girl named Teresa. He and Teresa had big dreams, and Buck had every intention of making them happen. He was destined to set the world on fire, he was sure of it. Deep down, though, his greatest fear was that he wouldn’t measure up.
On this particular morning, Victor, Mo, and Buck happened to ride up to the 92nd floor in the elevator together. The three men did not know each other.
Each settled quickly into his job for the day. There was little down time during the 12-hour shift. Only 30 minutes were allocated for lunch. Smoke breaks were kept to a minimum. The work day progressed on sweat and adrenaline.
Victor was assigned to a gin pole today with two other men. They were responsible for holding the supports steady while the derrick operator guided the massive steel beams into place. It was slow, painstaking work, but he enjoyed the methodical nature of it. Victor’s father had been a steelworker in Denmark before the family immigrated to the US, and Victor had followed in his father’s footsteps. He was proud to have this job, but money was still tight. His greatest wish was to be able to afford a washing machine for his Alma. But such luxuries seemed unattainable.
Since Big Mo had more experience than many of the other steelworkers, he more or less floated most of the day, acting in several different roles. He went from team to team across the lofty space, balancing on boards as he went, and would lend a hand or offer his expertise where it was needed. When he allowed himself, Big Mo worried about getting work after this job was finished. At 37 years old, he would be competing for employment against much younger men. His biggest fear was having to drag his wife and seven children back to Newfoundland where he knew he could get work in the mines. But New York City was where he wanted to be. America was the promised land. He’d do anything for work, as long as he could stay here.
Buck was naturally rail-thin but kept himself in peak physical shape doing push-ups every day and helping his father unload deliveries at his dry goods store. He was, fittingly, the bucker-up for his riveting team, a job that basically involved holding the molten hot rivet in place while the gunman hammered it into a steel beam. He often had to perch precariously on the edge of the building, feet dangling over the New York City sidewalk far below. He had burned his hands more times than he could count. But he loved his team and this job and was grateful for both. And all his efforts at staying fit would soon prove to be worth the time.
The day moved along predictably. Each man or team of men knew their jobs well since they had performed them efficiently for months. The lack of safety equipment didn’t seem to bother them, having long grown accustomed to the hazardous conditions. In fact, many of them thrived on the danger.
Just last week, a photographer was up there with them, taking photos of the construction as well as those doing the work. Many of the men had fun showing off, being a bit more daring than the job entailed. Some hung precariously over the side; others pretended to nap on a beam suspended over the open air. It made for very good photos. Hence, the name “Skyboys.” Today, however, was all business and the men worked as such.
Shortly after lunch on this sweltering hot day, as one team was maneuvering a steel girder into place with a derrick, a strong wind gust blew across the site. The wind caught one side of the girder, and the enormous beam began to rotate. One end of the girder struck a steel column on the northwest side of the building, ricocheted off, and caused the girder to spin the other way.
Like many things in life, this scenario was not uncommon, but nonetheless unexpected. The girder may not have swung wildly, but several hundred pounds of steel, even moving slowly, can do a lot of damage. Men in the path of the girder ducked or jumped out of the way. Thankfully, the long beam narrowly missed a rivet heater which would’ve been an issue for the men working the floor below.
Big Mo was about 10 feet away from the rotating beam. In his haste to get out of its way, he didn’t notice the riveting tongs that were carelessly left on a board behind him. He lost his footing, reached for and missed a scaffolding support, and fell.
The construction being done on the 92nd “floor” was strictly framing work. Other than steel beams, wood planks, and a few scaffolding platforms, there was nowhere to stand. The same held true for the 91st and 90th floors. One level below that the floor had recently been poured and set. So when Big Mo fell off the 92nd floor, he was going to tumble down three stories and land on concrete.
In the slow-motion seconds that followed Big Mo’s fall, his mind went only one place: his family. He couldn’t die. He couldn’t be seriously injured. There were nine mouths to feed, and they were counting on him. He needed to survive.
Reacting physically before his brain could process it, Big Mo twisted his body and stretched out his hands, nimbly grasping the beam he just fell off. His fingers clung to the metal as his body swung beneath. He dared not look down.
Just as quickly, Buck and Victor sprang into action. Buck was closest so he jumped on the beam and reached down to grab Big Mo’s shirt collar to keep him from plummeting below. In an instant, Victor had shimmied down a nearby column and was under Big Mo, Victor’s shoulders supporting the tall man’s legs. Above him, Buck was able to brace his own legs and improve his grip on Big Mo. It took some effort, but Buck was finally able to heave Big Mo up enough so that he could pull his body onto the beam. The rescue was met with applause by the men around them.
Safely standing on his own two feet, Big Mo clasped the hands of the two men who just saved his life and simply said, “Thank you, gentlemen.” Any other words would’ve belittled the moment. Buck and Victor simply nodded their heads.
The rest of the day was uneventful by comparison, and at the end of the shift, the workers rode the elevators to the ground, scattering into the city like insects.
As he rode the train to Brooklyn, Victor leaned back in the seat, thinking about his darling Alma and his boys. He realized he couldn’t wait to see them. And he would find a way to get that washing machine. A slow smile spread across his tired face. Big Mo reflected on his near-accident, not all that unusual in this line of work. Seated on the bus, he said a silent prayer of thanks that the incident ended the way it did and couldn't imagine how his life would've changed had things gone another way. Big Mo made a promise to himself that he would do everything in his power to keep his family in America. And Buck, although too young to fully appreciate the implications of saving Big Mo, felt his heart swell with pride over his quick actions. Looking forward to what lay ahead, he purchased a small bouquet of flowers for his Teresa before hopping on the train.
This day, like all the others, was a long one. But as Victor, Big Mo, and Buck each made their way to their respective homes with the dirt and grime from a hard day’s work embedded in both their skin and their souls, they understood what was truly important.