Climbing the Outerbridge. Is That in the Intern Handbook?

By Thomas V. Terzulli, Media Relations Staff

Starting a new job or internship is all about getting used to new surroundings. There’s a new office, a new boss, new co-workers and even some new lunch spots. That’s no different with me, except my new view didn’t come courtesy of the inside of a cubicle. Not even a full week into my tenure as a Port Authority summer intern, I found myself suspended nearly 200 feet in the air at the top of the Outerbridge Crossing.

I wouldn’t have been there without Rudy King, my Media Relations officemate who I met on the first day of my summer internship at the Port Authority. Our journey began with a question: “Are you afraid of heights?” Being a rollercoaster aficionado, I answered with a resounding no. Before I knew it, I was agreeing to accompany Rudy to the bridge on what would be just my third day. How could I pass it up? None of the other interns were asked to scale a bridge.

Our presence was needed for a media opportunity. A reporter from News 12 New Jersey wanted to do a story about Port Authority bridge painters, a fearless crew that spends their days suspended hundreds of feet in the air, twisting, turning and maneuvering themselves in an effort to hand-paint the agency’s massive structures. Who could possibly want to do that?  I was about to find out.

 

Terzulli

Port Authority intern Tom Terzulli prepares for an Outerbridge Crossing climb.

Rudy and I walked into a small trailer on the Staten Island side of the hulking bridge, which connects to Perth Amboy on the New Jersey side. There, we were introduced to three bridge painting veterans, all with more than 20 years of experience painting in the air. What struck me first was their calm. They work at a job where danger is a constant companion. But they were at ease, shooting the breeze like life-long friends would do at their favorite pub.

They could see I didn’t share the same care-free disposition. As a result, there was constant reassurance, a chorus of “you’ll be okay” and “it’s not that bad.” But there was also a fair amount of joking, with one painter vowing to not scare me “too much.” Any type of conversation was calming, as long as it wasn’t about the climb. We put on our gear, including a neon Port Authority vest and a harness able to hold up to 1,000 pounds. I thanked my lucky stars I didn’t weigh more than that.

When the time came, we hopped in an official Port Authority van and drove to a spot just in front of the Staten Island toll plaza. Being a native Staten Islander, I had driven over the bridge too many times to count, but I had never even come close to doing what I was about to attempt.

We then arrived at the middle of the span and stood by the side of the road. I must have looked up hundreds of times in a matter of minutes, still unsure how or why I ended up here. The News 12 reporter went up first and Rudy after him, leaving me with one of the three painters operating my way up.

Our ride was a motorized elevator scaffolding, where the harness from earlier would come in handy. Had I slipped on the platform, it was the only thing between me and the water. As the elevator rose I tried everything to suppress my fear. I stayed on my knees and refused to look down, blabbering on to one of the painters about whatever I could come up with.

Painting Crew

The painting crew, with News 12 New Jersey correspondent Jim Murdoch (center front)

Then we reached the top, where my journey came to end. The elevator stopped a foot short of the top of the bridge. I was instructed to climb from the scaffolding to the top of the structure. Nothing but imagination separated my back from the Arthur Kill nearly 200 feet below. Every ounce of my being was telling me not to do it, and I eventually listened.

Even though I didn’t reach the summit, I left with an immense appreciation for the people who perform one of the toughest jobs on earth — and wondering if Day 4 of my summer internship would be half as exciting as Day 3.

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