Tappan Zee Bridge painters reach the heights for a brush with greatness

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Nearly every day from spring to fall, Leroy Bailey and six of his colleagues report to a job that is not for the fainthearted.

Strapped to a harness, they climb hundreds of feet in the air, with speeding traffic and the Hudson River below, to de-rust and repaint the Tappan Zee Bridge.

"If you're not focused on your job, it only takes once for you to lose your life," said Bailey, 45, of Yonkers, a member of the bridge-painting crew.

"But it's not bad," fellow painter Wayne Simpson, 49, of Sloatsburg chimed in. "Can't beat the view."

The Tappan Zee Bridge painters, who are New York State Thruway Authority employees, work to protect the bridge during the warm-weather months, scouring rust and covering the span with epoxy primer, red oxide paint and silicone alkyd finish coat to maintain structural integrity.

Some of the decades-old paint on the bridge, which was built in 1955, poses a challenge to the painters, who have to contain rust and paint chips with vacuums attached to their rust-removing tools.

"It's a constant battle," said the painting crew's acting supervisor, Daniel Speckman, 50, of Hopewell Junction, "because rust never sleeps."

Most bridge painters, who earn between $40,466 and $57,808 annually, are hired with full qualifications, while others are signed on as trainees and go through a two-year training program, state officials said.

Painters have fallen over the years. Two tumbled into the water, one in the 1970s and one in the early 1990s, before rules requiring the wearing of safety harnesses were strictly enforced, officials said. Another accident happened to a painter wearing a harness in recent years. Luckily, all three survived their falls.

But the heights are only part of the danger.

The painters have encountered times when they had to abandon their jobs to address car accidents and even save lives on the road below, Speckman said.

"It's happened with me, where a car was squeezed up against the rail by a tractor-trailer, and it actually got squeezed under and turned around," Speckman said. "It was two elderly women, and it was probably 10, 15 years ago."

Speckman said he was climbing the bridge when he saw the accident. He quickly climbed back down and diverted traffic away from the wreck, something that's also in the crew's job description.

"Nothing happened to the ladies, thank God," Speckman said. "But the car was crushed. And amazingly, stuff like that happens out here."

The chaos below almost disappears once the painters get locked into their work, said bridge painter Clifton Thomas, 29, of Mount Vernon.

"It's like you block everything out," Thomas said. "You don't realize the traffic is there and you're up on a bridge."

The crew originated in the early 1960s, and as of last year had 14 members. However, as a result of workforce reduction and retirement, the team is half that size now.

"We're down to a skeleton crew," said Simpson, who added that there used to be as many as 21 painters on the force.

There are not yet any plans to wind down the Tappan Zee maintenance, as the state continues to work on a $3.9 billion replacement bridge scheduled to be completed in 2018, according to a Thruway Authority spokesman. But once construction on the new bridge gets under way, the painters will be moved to work on other, smaller bridges in the area. That's what they already do when the weather gets too cold to climb the Tappan Zee.

Thomas said he loves his job but is concerned about his future, as he has seen his crew dwindle.

"Let's see what happens with the new bridge," Thomas said.

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