Builders pit game plan against clock at stadium Rush: After two years of construction teamwork, the first kickoff at the Ravens' uncompleted home is less than two months off with no timeouts allowed

Stadium Watch

June 15, 1998|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

The battle begins anew each morning, as the sun peeks over the horizon, casting its light on a pockmarked terrain of rubble, machines and spent iron.

Here, hundreds of men and women mass with battered helmets on their heads, goggles dangling from their necks. In their hands are the weapons of their trades: drills, saws, hammers and torches.

They are in the final, frenzied two months of a battle with a rigorous deadline. They will have gone from drawing board to football stadium in two years and two months. The outer shell is nearly complete, the electricity and plumbing all working. But there is still much to be done before kickoff Aug. 8.

This is no time to let up.

Such has it been from the start. Amid clanging steel and choking dirt, the workers have thrown themselves each day at the task of constructing an elegant stadium of green glass and red brick on what used to be a parking lot south of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

They are architects and excavators and carpenters and crane operators and pipe fitters. They come from union hiring halls and corporate offices. Working with materials as soft as putty and as hard as brick, they give three-dimensional life to a set of blueprints as big and flat as a coffee table.

The job is a high profile one, literally and figuratively. The stadium is about as tall and long as the Titanic and five times as wide. One of the most prominent features on the city's skyline, it is the first thing thousands of commuters and tourists see as they arrive downtown every day.

Any shortcomings are sure to be attacked by fans and an unforgiving media, not to mention taxpayers who are paying the bulk of the stadium's $222 million cost. Conversely, if it succeeds, the stadium could define a new state of the art, just as Oriole Park did for baseball.

This is no simple barn raising. By the time the 69,000-seat stadium opens, more than 200,000 tons of concrete will have been poured and formed, 16 miles of handrails galvanized and installed and more than a million bricks cemented into place.

Steel piles will have been jammed nearly 90 feet into bedrock and delicate light bulbs installed 165 feet in the air.

A jail, weight room and X-ray center will have opened in the basement.

Six hundred forty-seven public toilets and 321 urinals will have been installed and tested in 72 bathrooms. More than a million feet of electrical wiring will have been strung, creating a network capable of handling enough juice to power five buildings the size of Baltimore's World Trade Center.

And it absolutely, positively must be done by Aug. 8, when the Chicago Bears come to town for a preseason game.

Vincent Keim, a foreman supervising the installation of railings on the upper deck a few weeks ago, felt the pressure. And he passed it on down, hustling back and forth between crews under his watch like Stonewall Jackson inspecting his battle lines on horseback.

"It's pretty hard. I'm trying to infect the people with urgency," Keim said between exchanges on a scuffed-up walkie-talkie.

Behind and below him was the muddy dirt that would eventually be a football field. In front of him were the tiered rows of white concrete, about half-filled with purple seats. As he watched workers bolt pewter-colored railings to one corner of the concrete seating bowl, others from a completed section suggested moving on. Keim refused. He wanted all available hands completing each section before going on to the next, doing the job right so nothing has to be redone.

"Just knowing that it's a stadium and that so many people are going to come and see it makes it tougher. It's got to look pretty," Keim said.

Second stadium chance

Nearly 700 people are on the site, the final regiments of a transitory army of 3,000 that will have worked on the project over the past two years. They come in waves depending on their specialties, completing their tours of duty and turning over the work to fresh recruits.

"It's a coming-and-going effect. It's not like anybody's been here from the beginning," said Alice Hoffman, the Maryland Stadium Authority's project manager on the job.

Except her, of course. The 37-year-old, Porsche-driving civil engineer from southern Illinois has experience building bridges, tunnels and buildings. But this is her first stadium.

She turned down overseeing Oriole Park's construction; then, at Opening Day in 1992, she felt like kicking herself for not having taken that job. A second chance came in 1996, after she had moved to Maryland to work for a consulting company, living for a while on a boat at the Inner Harbor.

The state then began building a football stadium for the former Cleveland Browns, now called the Ravens, and needed someone to oversee the construction. She accepted the $90,000-a-year position.

She is the field marshal, working out of a cluttered trailer under the Russell Street overpass, pushing the project along. A sign on her office door reads: "Shut up and Build."

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