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Working at the river's bottom: Crews stay dry in cofferdam as pier work continues in the Mississippi

Working at the river's bottom: Crews stay dry in cofferdam as pier work continues in the Mississippi

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Thirty-two feet below the Mississippi River’s surface, construction worker Mike Wasylko stood on a 12-foot-thick slab of concrete that held back water from filling the metal cofferdam he and a handful of men were working in Friday.

The Ames Construction workers are among those working day and sometimes night at least six days a week to make sure the new Winona interstate bridge is complete by late 2016. To help meet that aggressive schedule, Wasylko and his coworkers continued to build the foundation of the river pier closest to the Winona side Friday -- a job they've been on for a couple weeks already.

Water had been pumped out of the cofferdam, but it was far from dry. Water still rushed between cracks in the walls, creating large ice sculptures on the inside and a small moat around the concrete that workers used as level ground. Among the streaming water, construction sounds and the water pump working to keep water below the concrete, the air buzzed with noise.

Despite the cold and wet environment, workers Friday said they wouldn’t want any other job. Foreman Nick Larson said it brings great satisfaction and pride to be a part of a historic project. Larson said he looks forward to the day he can see it complete.

“It’ll be fun when you’re boating down the river to say you worked on it,” he said with a smile.

That day, of course, is years away. Until then, there are many hard working days ahead.

With a neon yellow rubber suit on and a tool belt strapped around his waist, Wasylko walked through a few inches of water on the cement and approached his workbench — a piece of plywood set on a three-and-half foot wide hollow metal tube that runs more than 100 feet down and into the river’s bedrock. Wasylko started a tablesaw, and within a minute had sliced a long piece of wood into several small parts, which he carried to coworker Scott Ristau, hidden behind a wooden wall within the cofferdam.

Ristau was building a brace for a wall that would help guide where the pier’s 18-by-50-foot concrete foundation would go. With only a few feet between the wooden wall and the cofferdam wall — behind which the river water pressed to enter — Ristau stepped onto the concrete slab and out of a couple feet of water to reach a section where the piece of wood would be nailed. With a few quick swings of his hammer, Ristau was on to the next piece.

Ristau, Wasylko, and Larson said the thought of being at the bottom of the river has ceased to be a big deal. They’ve gotten over the thrill — and fear — of being surrounded by water under the surface of the world’s fourth-longest river.

“We’re kinda used to it,” Larson said, who has 15 years in the industry. “The first time it was a little overwhelming. Little scary at first.”

When he worked on the Dresbach bridge before switching to the Winona project, Larson said he and others pondered how previous bridges were built and how hard or different it must have been. Larson said it’s even more intriguing to think about the scenario when future workers build a new bridge to replace the one they're now constructing.

“When they build the next one, they’ll probably be talking about us,” he said with a smile. “Someone’s gotta build the next one in a hundred years.”

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