It’s 5 a.m. when Michael O’Reilly wakes up, a time when most of us are still burrowed under covers, hours away from starting the day. The hazy, half light of early morning in Hoboken is a quiet time, usually only punctuated by the morning jogger, the shift worker, or police making car patrols through empty streets. In a town known for its night life, very few sounds break the weekday calm of 5 a.m. While the town slumbers, Mike rises in preparation of his day.
It is a day that begins with routine. Like many of us, his starts with coffee and reading the paper with his partner. But unlike us, his partner in question isn’t his spouse; it is his work partner Tom Hickey. Every morning, the pair meets on site for coffee before the day begins. It is a partnership that works like a good marriage. In fact, the two are dependent on one another for safety and accuracy on the job. Trust, fearlessness, and simpatico personalities. It could be a blueprint for marriage, but it also describes essential qualities when you are working side by side with someone 1000 feet in the air.
Mike is an ironworker for Local 40 and part of the team constructing the Freedom Tower, now renamed 1 World Trade Center, a project finally nearing completion. It is a building the world watches. What was Ground Zero now has a beacon, a monolith burgeoning from lower Manhattan. It has special significance in Hoboken, as it is our view. It is also the skyline that rests in collective memory and remains a symbol even as the landscape has changed. While many watched when the first steel beam was set in 2009, Mike and Tom went to work.
The men are connectors and two of the many that make up the crew responsible for constructing the building. Much of the success in getting a building done timely relies on good connectors, who work on the steel beams, crafting the skeletal structure together with bolts. Mike calls work as a connector as “hard work, cowboy work, dangerous work, the most glorified work, and the most rewarding.” It is called that not only because of the sheer physicality of the work, but also because of the dizzying heights and inherent danger of the job. “I am an ironworker, working with some of the best people in the world,” he said. “I am the guy taking the risks, so I don’t mind taking some of the credit.”
He says that he and gravity “have an understanding” and recalls only a few close calls. Working at such great heights is a dangerous business. They don’t work in rain, snow, or in high winds. One time, while walking across a beam, he was knocked off by a gust of wind. He turned midair and grabbed the beam. “You react,” he says. “Your body reacts. It’s instinct. Your body literally takes over.”
Mike is formidable, both in mind and body, yet his demeanor is calm. That should be no surprise given the nature of the work. Demanding physically, yet requiring incredible focus to ensure that each beam is properly connected. That focus comes across in his piercing blue eyes, which spark with laughter particularly when describing the day to day life on the job. He says that most ironworkers are physically fit.
“Everyone is big. Everyone is intimidating,” he said, including his partner Tom, who he describes as “good-looking and as big as an ox.” They’ve worked together four years now, cementing their movements into synchronized perfection. Mike says that one of the reasons they work so well together is that they each know what the other will do before he does it.
While the job demands precision and physical prowess, it is a job that when the day is over it’s done. Yet to be at the top of his game, requires Mike to take care of his body. At 5’11” and 215 pounds, his body is impressively muscled. Even with a large frame and massive forearms hewn by hours of labor, maintaining that strength means going to the gym after work. It also includes a cycling loop that is part work, part recreation. The loop takes him along the water and up Sinatra Drive, which he bikes facing traffic. His rule-bending approach is for the safety of his dog Quint, who Mike says will only run on the left side of him while on a leash. If he rode with traffic, he’d be exposing Quint to possible danger, which is a risk he’s unwilling to take. The bond they share is apparent.
It is also a bond that helps him regroup after a day in the sky. He says his down time is spent mostly relaxing in his apartment. He jokes that his living room is really Quint’s room. With high ceilings, exposed brick and dark leather couches, it has a city look, but a plush dog bed under the windows give it a decidedly homey feel. He says that when he gets home it’s about “grounding down,” a fitting description for a man working high above the earth needing to reconnect to the ground. Yet working so high above the Hudson River doesn’t scare him. “It’s not really a big deal to me. It’s a great view, no doubt about it. You can see all the way down to Sandy Hook, the GWB, as far out as Long Island Sound,” he said, explaining that for ironworkers it’s normal to be that high up.
Growing up on the south shore of Long Island, Mike is clearly a man at home with the elements. Air, earth, water, all have a special pull for him. “I’ve been on the water my entire life,” he said. His dream boat is a 46-foot Wesmac, which is getting constructed piece by piece in Maine. The boat represents much to him. Memories of course of a childhood spent by the water, but it also marks a choice he made after the passing of a friend and mentor. “This guy taught me the tree business. He was 55 years old. This guy was awesome – if he liked you, he loved you. He built this huge company, went to work everyday. He was married with two kids. He passed away in his sleep one night. Died of a massive heart attack. It literally floored me,” he said. “It was so sad with him passing and it was right after my dad had passed away. I thought, why should anyone work so hard in this world – when in a second it could be taken away?”
His legacy is something he thinks about. What will be around to show his grandkids, should he have them. Yet he understands the day-to-day dangers of his job. “Who knows how long I will be here doing what I do,” he said. The boat, which he plans to name Sweet Senorita, is something tangible he can show his kids. “Everyone should have a legacy that lives on. I’m living my father’s now,” he said.
Mike is working the same job his father Tom did decades ago. His father had a 20 year career in the business and constructed many important buildings. Tom worked on 7 World Trade Center and helped build the Twin Towers. His father’s reputation looms large over his and some guys on the job won’t let him forget it. On his first day as an ironworker, he recalls a guy who was on the job for 30 years asked him, “Which O’Reilly are you?” “I’m Tom’s son,” Mike answered. He describes the guys as a tight knit group. But he was still amazed that guys would see the resemblance in his face with his father away from the job for 20 years. There is loyalty in the men who work with Mike. Loyalty might seem foreign to those who work under different conditions. But given what they do, ironworkers forge a brotherhood built on hard work and passion.
He says that when he became an ironworker 10 years ago he knew this was the path he was supposed to be on. “The path literally finds you,” he said. Yet the events that unfold in a life are not always of our making. When he was 11 years-old, his father fell and was injured on the job at 7 World Trade Center. The injury left him paralyzed from the waist down. But when recounting details of his father, Michael remembers the funnier, unexpected moments. He says after his dad fell, the first thing he asked for was a cigarette and said to the men, “Let’s get back to work.” And indeed, Tom O’Reilly was a positive force in Mike’s life. Through him, he learned about the nature of hard work and the importance of family.
The stories we tell. The stories we remember are often pinned in place with an emotional charge. Very often that current shifts the shape of our face, our future. But the choices we make show the world what we love. After 9/11, many felt called to take action. From our corner of the world, we watched as smoke rose from lower Manhattan. Yet it was the fall of 7 World Trade Center, a building his father helped create that compelled Michael to act. That night, the smoke still rising, he decided to honor his father. He called his dad and said, “I want to rebuild your building.” For Michael, his path was clear. In that moment he knew he wanted to become an ironworker.
Perhaps that’s why he seems so solid. It’s not just the physical strength he exudes with the span of his chest and large hands. He holds the power of conviction, marked by his love for his father. An ironworker builds the bones. He gives shape to the steel skeletal mass that rises as the building’s design and many layers take form. Now on the job 10 plus years, he says he can’t imagine doing anything else. He’s proud of the work on 1 World Trade Center, but he says he’s most proud and grateful that he got to rebuild 7 World Trade Center. New to the job, he wasn’t sure he would get to work on it. “This is how much of a tight knit group they are,” he said about his fellow ironworkers. “They held on to me to get me to 7 World Trade. I did the exact same job that my dad was doing.”
The bond of brotherhood that the men share is undeniable. That kind of trust and belonging Mike remembers from his childhood. He said that guys in his neighborhood all knew each other. It wasn’t considered unusual for him to walk into a friend’s house while they were having dinner. While that kind of friendship is hard to duplicate, he has found a home of sorts in Hoboken. He spends some of his down time at Texas Arizona, a downtown bar that sits across from lower Manhattan. “I love everyone that hangs out at Texas Arizona,” he said. The camaraderie that the men share is fueled by friendly competition. Many of the guys who frequent the establishment are part of the beer club, which awards prizes to winners. It is also a place where people bond over sports. Football and the New York Yankees are only two of the reasons he loves this town. “I can walk away from the job and say, look what I did today and I’m happy,” he said.
If your face shows the marks of a life, then one needs only to get Mike to laugh to appreciate his outlook. With laugh lines framing his intense blue eyes, it’s easy to see how his sense of purpose has allowed him to embrace life no matter the challenges. He believes that everything in life is connected. “9/11 happens, my father’s building falls down – it’s all connected. When they say life happens for a reason, it’s the God’s honest truth,” he said. As work on 1 World Trade slows down, he looks to the future. Eventually, he plans to become a foreman. “Every day that I’m working, I’m one step closer to becoming a foreman,” he said. For Michael, acquiring new skills and overcoming any challenges is his way forward. But for now, he is a builder. “I can’t wait for the day when I can drive the kids around and point to a building that their father or their grandfather did,” he said. “We are literally changing the skyline. It’s nice to say that these hands have done that.”
Photos by Krista Kelly, Dan Dunn, and Tim Conboy.