May 20, 2001, Sunday


. . . When You Come to It. Or Much Later.

By CAREN CHESLER (NYT) 1892 words


THE Victory Bridge in Perth Amboy used to have wire mesh over the windows because so many drivers, angry at having to wait for the bridge to open, threw beer bottles at the bridge operators inside. John Trapp, who has worked at that bridge for 20 years, said one motorist pulled a gun, but he seemed more intent on impressing his friends than shooting anyone.

''We had a beer bottle crash through the window once and just miss the chief's head,'' Mr. Trapp said.

More than a dozen drawbridges dot the Jersey Shore, from Sandy Hook to Wildwood, and those driving down the coast in summer are bound to become mired in traffic at one of them. The state workers who open and close them soon learn that little stirs up the ire of drivers more than something standing between them and their vacation.

Tom Meirose, who works with Mr. Trapp, said that people honked horns or shouted profanities, but the operators learned to tune out.

''I have friends say: 'I was beeping my horn and waving. Didn't you see me?' I say, 'No,' '' Mr. Meirose said.

The busiest drawbridges are the Route 35 and Route 71 bridges that cross the Shark River in Belmar. In January and February, they open an average of five times a day. In July and August, they average 37 times a day. Linda DeMartino, who supervises those two bridges, says she will open and close the Route 35 bridge, sit down to do some paperwork, and 5 or 10 minutes later has to get up and do it all over again.

''You hardly have time to go to the bathroom,'' she said.

From May 15 to Sept. 30, the Shark River bridges have scheduled openings. Weekdays between 4 and 7 p.m. and for most of the weekend the bridges are scheduled to open every half-hour, provided there are boats waiting to go through. Beyond that the bridges open on demand, and there is a lot of it. And under federal maritime law, boat traffic has the right of way, unless an ambulance needs to go through.

Bridge openings on the Shark River are complicated. A boat captain will radio the bridge operator on Route 35 to ask for a lift. The operator then calls the bridge house on Route 71, because the two bridges must open simultaneously. A call is then placed to the operator of the railroad bridge, which runs parallel to Route 35 there, as the rail bridge also has to open. The rail bridge operator then calls a dispatcher in Hoboken for clearance, because if a train is scheduled to move through, the rail bridge cannot open.

The bridge operator then flips a switch on a computerized control board, turning the traffic light near the bridge from green to red. Another switch brings down the crash gates to keep the cars from moving through. But the gates extend only halfway across the road, and the occasional motorist will drive around them. It is not until a third switch is flipped, activating the barrier gates, that the roadway is entirely sealed.

''People say: 'I'm not going to sit here in 100-degree weather. I'm going to run the light,' '' Ms. DeMartino said. ''It's worse in the summer. People are frantic.''

An opening can last as long as 15 minutes, depending on how many boats are waiting. Last summer, a truck driver jumped out of the line of traffic, swerved around the first line of gates and sped across the bridge, making it through the barrier gate on the other side just before it closed.

''He had about 10 feet before the gate was closed,'' Ms. DeMartino said. ''He really took one hell of a chance.''

Doris Pedersen, another bridge operator on the Shark River, was already opening the bridge when a boy came running over the barrier gates and headed toward the crest of the roadway, where the gap was widening by the second. She quickly hit the emergency stop button so he could make it to the other side.

The bridge operators not only monitor cars, trains, pedestrians, cyclists and skateboarders, they also have to watch the boaters passing through, some of whom have a hard time getting what they view as their big vessel through a tiny hole.

Fred Dietz, a worker at the Lovelandtown Bridge over the Point Pleasant Canal, says inexperienced boaters will bounce off the sides of the canal or bang into the fenders on the bridge. But the more usual problem is boaters who insist that their vessels are too tall for the bridge when Mr. Dietz knows they have plenty of room. Sometimes it is a perception problem, he said, and sometimes the boater has an outdated map showing that the bridge is only 12 feet high, even though it was raised years ago and can now clear boats as high as 28 feet.

''These people will say, I need 15 feet. I need a lift,'' Mr. Dietz said, ''and we'll say: 'You got 28 feet. You don't need a lift.' And yet they'll stop and wait there because they don't believe it. I don't know how much a new map costs, but I would think they're not that expensive.''

While boat traffic along the shore increases in the summer, the Victory Bridge in Perth Amboy sees a small but steady flow all year. Amerada Hess, which has a refinery in nearby Port Reading, sends tugs and barges up and down the Raritan River and out to the Narrows between Staten Island and Brooklyn throughout the year. The company's vessels pass through so regularly that tug and barge operators are awarded bonuses if they go all year without hitting the bridge and damaging their vessels. Several years ago, the stern of a Hess barge hit an iron strut on the Victory Bridge, causing so much damage that the road had to be closed and the state sued the company. The Dec. 29 accident cost the operator his bonus.

For the operators at the Victory Bridge, like Mr. Meirose and Mr. Trapp, anger and profanity from drivers and an occasional passenger who exposes his buttocks are all in a day's work. But then there was the evening several years ago, Mr. Trapp said, when he was preparing for a bridge opening and a man walking along Route 35 approached him and brandished a sword.

''I said: 'Go see the guy on the other side. He has a sword,' '' Mr. Trapp said.

Ms. Pedersen said she was once working the overnight shift on the Morgan Bridge on Route 35, over Cheesequake Creek, when a man walked up the stairs and right into the bridge house. It was about 2 a.m. and the lock on the bridge house was broken. Ms. Pedersen looked at him and said: ''Quick! Come with me,'' and she ran out the door, beckoning him to follow. When she got to the bottom of the stairs, she pointed and said, ''Run north!'' And he did.

Mr. Trapp says he has seen bodies wash up on shore and once saw a man jump off the Edison Bridge, half a mile up the Raritan River. Though he didn't witness it, he has heard about a girl who jumped off one bridge, landed in mud and was stuck. When high tide came, she drowned. Nor did he see the married couple who made a suicide pact. The wife jumped off the Victory Bridge to her death, but the husband changed his mind and drove off. He returned to the same site a year to the day later and jumped too. That is a story most operators on that bridge have told and retold for decades.

Summer can be hectic, but bridge operators spend the rest of the year leading a quiet, solitary existence, eight hours a day in a room no larger than a jail cell, with a desk, a radio, a telephone and a window. If their replacement doesn't show up, they have to work another eight-hour shift. They read and listen to the radio.

During storms, they may have to leave the warm room to clear snow off the bridge. They have chores, like mopping the floor of the bridge house or clearing away bird excrement and pigeon nests that build up underneath the spans. Mr. Trapp said he used to read Tom Clancy or Stephen King novels, but he has taken to doing ''Wordfind'' puzzles because he used to be a printer and can read backward.

''You're working by yourself,'' Mr. Dietz said. ''You've got to like that kind of thing. I work the night shift and I get to see the sun coming up in the morning.''

Mr. Dietz was a car mechanic when he took the test to become a bridge operator 20 years ago. He says he wanted to be a lighthouse keeper, but there aren't many working lighthouses in New Jersey anymore. He became a bridge operator so he could be near the water.

At night, he listens to the maritime radio and hears boaters at sea or in the bay, or he watches the canal and keeps an eye on the pedestrians who walk across the bridge. If he sees something suspicious, he calls the local police.

''It's not that I don't like being around people,'' he said. ''When I get out of here, I like to be with people. But I know a lot of people who probably couldn't do this. They'd go batty.''

Mr. Meirose likens it to cabin fever.

''You sit there in this 8-by-12-foot shack, for sometimes 16 hours, if you pull a double shift,'' he said. ''You start to go loony. If it weren't for books, we'd really go crazy.''

Mr. Meirose said he was working the overnight shift on the Victory Bridge one night, reading Stephen King's ''It,'' when he put the book down for a moment and heard a scream outside.

''It was a bloodcurdling scream, the kind that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up,'' he said. ''In the middle of the night, you get people who are screaming over anything. But this was a scream of actual terror.''

Mr. Meirose says he jumped up, opened the window and stuck his head out to see where it came from, but there were no cars or boats in sight. He might have thought his imagination had gotten the best of him, given the book he was reading, until a co-worker in the neighboring bridge house called out to him, ''Did you hear that?''

They never found out where the scream came from.


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