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Aug. 21, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


THE CONSTRUCTION APPRENTICE

Our reporter goes up 31 floors to frighten, amuse workers building Trump hotel

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Click on the photos to enlarge them...


Reporter Corey Levitan pivots a crane atop the Trump International Hotel construction site. The 64-story building is set to open in March 2008.
Photos by Gary Thompson.



Levitan, foreground, and co-workers help the crane operator place a mold that will be used to pour concrete for the next floor. Pours are conducted every three days.



Levitan radios directions to the crane operator to lower the largest concrete mold used in this building's construction. More than 11 tons is dangling by cables over his head.



Levitan nails boards into the top of the mold, part of the preparation for a concrete pour.



Levitan helps construction worker Sau Tafisi lift a 260-pound floor jack on which one of the molds will rest.

"What the hell are you laughing at?" Kaika Asinsin yells at me.

The 21-year-old is one of two construction workers struggling to steady the 30-by-50-foot concrete mold I'm lowering — via radio commands to the crane operator — onto the jacks above our heads.

 

"There's nothing funny about this!" Asinsin continues as the mold eclipses the sun like an alien tripod in Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds."

He's right. My laughter is the nervous kind. What am I doing guiding 23,000 pounds of steel in for a landing anyway? That's a question for the Trump organization, which approved my request to help build its first Las Vegas venture.

My Perini Building Co. crew mates and I are on the 31st floor of the Trump International Hotel, positioning and prepping molds for a concrete pour that, two days from now, will produce a 32nd floor in what is now the open space above us.

"Easy right!" I radio up to the crane operator. "Easy trolley in!"

I'm merely repeating instructions shouted to me by concrete superintendent Chris Wilcox, 35. But some of my own judgment factors in, such as when I inform the crane operator that 10 feet remains until the mold touches down. (It's more like 6 feet, when I think about it.)

The $1 billion condo-hotel complex behind the Frontier is set to open in March 2008 with 64 floors. That's if it's completed in spite of my participation. The mold I'm landing is now stuck on a chunk of rebar.

"I know it's stuck on the rebar!" Asinsin yells when I point out the obvious.

When I report for work at 6 a.m., I don't even know what rebar is.

"Are you serious?" asks deck foreman Jeff Heidorf. (It's the steel reinforcement set inside concrete, in case you're a girlie man like me.)

And my lack of mental qualifications have nothing on my lack of physical ones, as the snickers of some of my co-workers suggest.

"You're gonna help me?" asks Sau Tafisi, who weighs considerably more than the 260-pound jack we hoist into place on a wall. (And when I say we, I of course mean he.)

The only way someone my size belongs up here is if he hails from the planet Krypton.

At least I'm properly dressed — in my hard hat, oversized reflective safety vest (there are no smalls on construction sites) and harness. (If a cop, fireman or Indian shows up, I'm launching into "YMCA.")

While other plans for posh high-rise condos implode like old Strip hotels, the Trump name has sold all but 60 of this structure's 1,282 units. And that's at $700,000 to $7 million each! (Correction: the Donald Trump name has sold them; Ivana backed one of those imploded condo plans.) Reportedly, a second Trump Hotel tower is on the drawing board.

Distinguished by windows tinted with $25 million in 24-karat gold film, the first tower will eventually rise 624 feet, making it Las Vegas' tallest building after the Stratosphere.

It will hold that title for only about 6 months, however, if the Encore at Wynn Las Vegas, also under construction, reaches its reported summit of 631 feet. (Wynn reps would not confirm those reports.) Even if Trump is trumped, however, it could still retake the lead by adding an 8-foot comb-over at the top. (I promised Mr. Trump's people I wouldn't poke fun at their boss in this article and, technically, I haven't. That was a Rita Rudner joke.)

Wilcox assigns me to a variety of construction tasks I would be fired for attempting on "The Apprentice." For starters, I lay plywood atop a previously lowered concrete mold with a gentleman named Sandro.

"He's your partner, but he doesn't know anything!" Wilcox calls out to Sandro. "Do not kill him!

"No muerto!"

I smooth concrete on the sixth-floor pool deck. (Later, I discover why I was allowed to: The area I worked on will sit beneath a palm tree, so what it looks like doesn't matter.)

I even swing one of the site's two 320-foot-high cranes, like in that arcade game where you grab at the teddy bears. (Note to the wiseguy below me who ran for cover even though I had no payload: Ha ha.)

I thought construction work was going to be tedious and unrewarding, like when I hauled garbage for Republic Services or cleaned sewers for Clark County. But it's a lot of fun. You get to wear jeans, work out without paying a gym and engage in politically incorrect guy talk all day.

"We're guys," Wilcox explains. "You know?" (The only thing I wanted to do, but couldn't, was whistle at babes. They're a little hard to spot from 245 feet up, and I can't whistle anyway.)

The job is financially rewarding, too. It pays $75,000 to $125,000 a year for weeks that average 50 to 60 hours.

"And you get a feeling of pride by seeing what you built afterward," says Wilcox, who also had a hand in constructing the Palms, Red Rock Resort and Ritz-Carlton hotels.

"Plus, you get to go to the grand openings."

Pretty much the only downside is the risk of gruesome, unpredictable and immediate death at any time while on the job.

Nine workers have died from injuries on Las Vegas hotel construction sites since 1992 — two at Luxor, one at the Monte Carlo, three at The Venetian, one at the Aladdin and two at the South Coast. And these were all guys with considerably more training than the LEGOs I laid in grade school and the safety course I sat through with Review-Journal photographer Gary Thompson this morning.

One employee who asked not to be identified recalls witnessing an accident — 15 years ago in Carlin — in which a co-worker's head was sliced in two through his hard hat.

"This 3-by-4-foot piece of steel fluttered down two stories and peeled the side of his face off," the employee recalls. "He buckled, puked and then he was gone."

This is the movie playing in my head as a piece of steel at least 10 times more massive goes off balance right above me.

Fortunately, Wilcox's commands dislodge the mold from the rebar and my incorrect spatial estimate doesn't impede its landing. My head remains in one alien-sized piece.

"Hey man, you've got the life of the crane operator, the lives of all the guys around you, all on you!" Asinsin yells, upset by what he perceives as my cavalier attitude.

"You're the one who runs the rig!"

Wilcox tells me to ignore the construction criticism.

"You did an excellent job, considering," he says, declining to elaborate on what exactly was under consideration.

One day I'm going to gaze up at the Trump International Hotel and tell my child how daddy helped build it.

Or at least how he didn't kill anyone when they let him up there.

Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.


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COREY LEVITAN
FEAR AND LOAFING


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