Popular Mechanics Revisits Maze Rebuild


After a crucial section of a California freeway collapsed, this formidable construction boss pulled off one of the fastest, riskiest, most high-stakes reconstructions in U.S. history.

AROUND 3AM on April 29, 2007, a truck driver set off on a routine delivery from the Valero oil refinery in Benicia, California. The sky was dark and the roads were empty as he pulled out, heading to a gas station in Oakland, 40 miles away, at the wheel of a tanker containing 8,600 gallons of gasoline. The route took him down I-80 over the Carquinez Strait in Crockett before merging with the I-580 just outside Berkeley. There he rumbled onto a ramp and steered into the interchange where I-80 crisscrosses I-880 and I-580, a tangle of roadways known as the MacArthur Maze.

Like most highway interchanges, the Maze was both exceptional and unremarkable. It was built in the 1930s, when the Bay Bridge was constructed between San Francisco and Oakland. Its official name was the East Bay Distribution Structure, but it was soon dubbed the “Maze” because of its serpentine knot of interchanges and overpasses. (“MacArthur” was added after the construction of the MacArthur Freeway in 1966, connecting the Bay Bridge to the California 13 highway.)

The section of I-580 after it collapsed onto the roadway below it. One of its idiosyncrasies, invisible to commuters, was the steel in its beams. In the ’30s, the U.S. had plenty of steel mills, and steel structures were common. But in later decades, most bridges and overpasses in California were made entirely of concrete.

By 2007, a quarter million vehicles crossed the Maze on weekdays. It connected the Port of Oakland—where almost all of the containerized goods that moved through northern California were loaded or unloaded—to the rest of the state.

But at 3:42 a.m., the tanker was alone on the road like Pac- Man munching through his labyrinth. The driver turned onto the southbound I-880 ramp and approached a curve. The truck clipped a construction pylon, then slammed into a guardrail and ricocheted off, landing on its side just as the road passed under the eastbound I-580 connector.

Sliding across the pavement in a shower of sparks, the truck screeched to a halt in the middle of the freeway. Gas poured from the tank into slick puddles that reflected the overhead freeway lights. The driver crawled from the passenger window and backed away in the eerie quiet.

Then a massive fireball lit the night sky over the San Francisco Bay. SOME 200 MILES AWAY AT A LAKE TAHOE vacation house, bears were keeping Darla Myers Allen awake. At Tahoe, bears broke into homes and scavenged trash. Sometimes they even attacked people. Every creak Darla heard—bear.

To distract herself, Darla turned on the television and caught a report about the Maze. Firefighters arrived at 3:55 a.m. The blaze grew so intense that flames shot 200 feet up in the air and temperatures reached close to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit —almost as hot as molten lava—causing the steel girders under the overpass to melt. Firefighters watched helplessly as the eastbound I-580 connector began to buckle.

Covered with burns, the truck driver walked nearly a mile along the freeway before reaching a gas station and getting into a cab. Bubbles and blisters were forming on his hands. His hair was scorched. “Can you take me to the hospital?” he asked the cab driver. “I’m dying.” The truck driver was treated for second-degree burns at Kaiser Oakland Medical Center; miraculously, he survived.

At 4:02 a.m. the roadway collapsed. A 250-yard section draped like a sheet over the lower I-880. The detached deck left snarls of exposed twisted rebar—the long rods of steel that are used to reinforce concrete. It looked surreal, like the aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage.

Darla waited until 7 or so, then picked up the phone. Her father, Clinton “C.C.” Myers, was a bridge builder with his own construction firm. A larger-than-life figure in California, he was known for high-speed emergency bridge repair. Darla was in the business, too; after working for her dad, she was employed with a concrete company.

Myers had barely dragged his 6-foot-6 frame out of bed. “Hey, Darla,” he picked up, his voice gravelly after years of smoking. “Did you hear about the Maze?” Darla asked. “They had to shut it down.” Myers hung up and started dialing. His phone book contained a veritable All-Star team of rough-and-tumble engineers, concrete experts, welders, and crew chiefs. If he could get the right people and win the contract, he could have a chance at running one of the most audacious, high-stakes building jobs in U.S. history.

AS DAWN BROKE, OFFICIALS ACROSS CALIFORNIA were asking, “How the hell are we going to fix this?” The guy they looked to: Will Kempton, the director of Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation. A trim man with graying hair and a matching mustache, Kempton presided over a massive agency notorious for slow, expensive roadworks that snarled traffic around the state.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was Kempton’s big boss. As a young man, Schwarzenegger had worked as a bricklayer between bodybuilding competitions. Now, he saw infrastructure as a way to publicize the government’s capacity to do good. What’s more, Schwarzenegger remembered that the last Republican governor of California, Pete Wilson, had gotten the Santa Monica Freeway, one of the busiest freeways in the world at the time, rebuilt in just 66 days after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Schwarzenegger was a ferocious competitor—in bodybuilding, at the box office, even with his in-laws, the Kennedys (“I’m the only Kennedy in elected office,” he liked to brag). He told his staff to call Governor Wilson. “Find out how he did it,” he said. “Then figure out how to do it faster.”

The solution to Schwarzenegger’s request was C.C. Myers. Back in 1994 Caltrans had estimated it would take 12 to 18 months to repair the Santa Monica Freeway, but Governor Wilson, facing a tough reelection, told the agency to get it done in 140 days. Caltrans opened the job to bids, and Myers won.

Before corporate multinationals took over construction, Myers became California’s top bridge builder one grueling project at a time. He grew up on a farm in Southern California and was driving a tractor by the age of 8. At 16, he moved to Long Beach and camped out under the awning of his mom’s trailer. He lied about his age and found employment building houses.

His work ethic caught the eye of a Los Angeles bridge builder named Benny Benedict, who offered Myers a job. Over the next few years, Myers built bridges throughout California. In 1973, he and his brother, Richard, launched their own company, MCM Construction, with another well-known builder, Jim Carter. A few years later, Myers struck out on his own, with C.C. Myers Inc. By 1995, he had built or rebuilt about 1,000 bridges.

But Santa Monica was different—its closure cost the California economy $1 million a day. The project cemented Myers’s reputation for innovation and problem-solving. Usually crews rotate over two eighthour shifts, but Myers ran two 12- to 14-hour shifts a day, working a team of 300 people around the clock, costing him more than $1 million per week in payroll. He had trouble getting steel quickly enough from the East Coast, so he paid an extra $125,000 for a train to haul it nonstop.

Myers was on-site day and night. He cajoled, bullied, charmed, and coordinated the entire operation. One evening, the ironworkers were exhausted and wanted to go home, so Myers cut a deal to keep them working. The night foreman would get $250 in cash, and another $250 for his son’s Little League team. In total, Myers handed out $30,000 in restaurant gift certificates.

Once the concrete was poured and left to harden on the roadway, Myers treated the ironworkers at a fancy Italian restaurant. Myers got tipsy and in a shaking voice thanked the workers still dressed in their torn T-shirts and dirty jeans. “You guys worked your butts off,” he said. “You ought to be proud of what you accomplished.” He pulled out his wallet and placed 10 crisp $100 bills on the table.

He finished the job 74 days ahead of schedule, earning a $14.8 million bonus on top of the $14.9 million fee, turning a profit of $5 million. He bought himself a Hawker 700 jet to replace his Cessna Citation II as a reward. At the time he considered the project his proudest achievement; Governor Wilson called him “the miracle worker of the Santa Monica Freeway.”

Hiring C.C. Myers could be a chance for Kempton and Schwarzenegger to do Santa Monica, but better—and faster. First, though, Myers had to get the job.

IN THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH OF THE collapse, Kempton dispatched engineers to assess the damage. The basic structure of the upper ramp looked like this: Two columns held up an enormous rectangular concrete block called a bent cap that supported the frame of the overpass. A dozen 65-foot-long steel beams, known as girders (or Ibeams, because they resemble a capital I), were bolted to the bent cap, six on each side. Resting on the girders was a platform of wooden supports and rebar, with the concrete deck—the part commuters drove on—on top. The two columns had been charred; everything else had been destroyed.

On the lower I-880, Caltrans engineers drilled concrete samples and x-rayed parts of the freeway. To identify places where the concrete had cracked and detached from the rebar, they used radar to listen as they dragged metal chains over the road. A dull, hollow sound would indicate that the concrete had broken into layers; a clear, ringing sound would mean it was intact. There was a sigh of relief: The lower level—the 880—had suffered no structural damage. It could be fixed quickly and opened to commuters part-time as the higher overpass was rebuilt above it. Major repairs would be done at night, when the lower ramp was closed to traffic. Once the upper structure was in place, work on the concrete deck above would be done over live traffic.

Caltrans put out calls to steel manufacturers about the materials for the girders. Government projects require what’s known as “M&M domestic”—melted and manufactured in the U.S.—which was expensive and especially hard to find on the West Coast, since most American steel is still produced in the eastern part of the country. When several California steel companies passed, the agency began looking out of state. One company on the list was Stinger Welding, a small but growing firm in Coolidge, Arizona.

Nancy Henderson, Stinger’s project manager for bridge projects, picked up the call. When Caltrans asked if Stinger was interested in bidding for the job, she said, “Hell, yeah!” Henderson had contacts at steel mills across the country. She started working the phones, calling around Arizona, California, Texas, and Pennsylvania looking for 130 tons of two-inchthick, 40-foot-long plate.

Kempton convened his staff to prepare a bid package. On a warm spring morning, a dozen Caltrans designers, engineers, and senior officials gathered in the agency’s design office, poring over paper plans of the I-580 and I-880. There was a tremendous sense of urgency. The closure of the Maze would cost the Bay Area economy $5 to $6 million—per day.

Caltrans estimated that the repairs would take 50 days and offered an incentive of $200,000 for every day a contractor finished under that limit, up to a total of $5 million. The contractor would be penalized $200,000 for every day over 50. The MacArthur Maze job could mean a windfall for the winning bidder, or it could mean financial ruin.

Kempton’s deputies invited bids from 10 contractors with the experience to tackle the project, C.C. Myers among them.

That same week, Myers received a fax with a bold offer from a company he’d never heard of. “If you get the Maze job, let’s work together,” the message said. It quoted $3 per pound for the steel—high but not unreasonable—and asked for 25 percent of the bonus.

When other contractors got the fax, they laughed. Subcontractors don’t normally share bonus money.

The letterhead read Stinger Welding, and Myers decided to call and see what it was all about. “So, first of all,” Myers
barked into the phone, “who the hell are you?”

On the other end of the line was Carl Douglas, the diminutive, mustachioed president of Stinger, a stuffed grizzly bear looming over his desk. Like Myers, Douglas had built Stinger from the ground up into a multimillion-dollar company. Like Myers, he liked to fly airplanes and take risks. At Stinger, he was a hard-driving but beloved boss. He told Myers that he could get the steel plate.

Douglas gave Myers the name of someone who could vouch for him. Myers abruptly hung up and called the contact. Three minutes later, he was back on the phone with Douglas: “I want this built in record time.”

MYERS AND HIS NUMBER TWO, GARY JANCO, drove out to the wreckage to gather information for their bid. Myers had slicked-back silver hair, a charming smile, and the handsome, hardened face of a movie action hero. Now in his 60s, he had replaced the pack of cigarettes in his pocket with a deck of cards, on each one written a reason not to smoke. He’d quit in his 40s after realizing he wouldn’t live to see his kids reach their 20s.

The men looked up at the flame-blackened columns of the I-580. The air smelled acrid, of smoke and gasoline. Myers had never seen a section of freeway completely burned to the ground.

Janco, a former dishwasher with piercing blue eyes and a goofball wit, had worked for Myers since the late ’70s. Janco became Myers’s details guy, toiling over plans and figures, sweating the small stuff. He was Myers’s best friend and they shared the same work ethic. At the Santa Monica project in 1994, Janco cut his foot with a chainsaw, put tape over his boot, and kept working.

Janco recruited John Witmer, a grizzled Vietnam vet and auto-body repairman who once lost his hair due to stress from overwork. Janco nicknamed him Kojak, after the bald TV detective. Witmer’s hair had grown back long and thick, but the nickname stuck.

Kojak started as a carpenter, then became a foreman, and eventually, a general superintendent. In 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed the Nimitz Freeway, within hours Kojak was among those crawling through the ruins, shoring up the crumpled structure and hauling out survivors.

Janco and Kojak checked into a hotel nearby. Myers went back to his office in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova. He called a list of his go-to subcontractors—concrete experts, ironworkers, traffic coordinators—to gather ballpark figures for his bid.

AT 10 A.M. ON MAY 7, IN A WINDOWLESS BASEMENT boardroom at Caltrans headquarters, Dale Bonner, the newly installed secretary of business and transportation, sat on a dais alongside a row of government representatives, with flags of the U.S. and the State of California behind him. A handsome man with a shaved head and sharp suit, Bonner oversaw 15 state agencies, including Caltrans. In his hands, he held a stack of manila envelopes containing bids from seven contractors.

The highest was $6.4 million. Then Bonner opened Myers’s bid. He looked at the sheet of paper and passed it down the dais to other Caltrans reps. Finally, it reached a staffer from the office of engineers, who read it out loud: “C.C. Myers bids $876,075.”

Silence. It was millions less than Caltrans’s estimate.

It dawned on the group almost at once. Myers was waging an enormous bet: He was going for the full bonus. And to land the entire $5 million incentive, he’d have to finish the job in just 25 days—half Caltrans’s timeframe.

Myers was so confident he’d win the bid that he was in his office, dispatching his crew to the site before the victor was even announced. And by 3:30 p.m., he was at Caltrans headquarters, sitting at a table with Will Kempton to sign the contract in front of the news media. Myers turned to the assembled reporters and made a bold promise: He would have the I-580 open by Memorial Day weekend. “The people of the Bay Area have suffered enough,” he boomed.

HALF AN HOUR EARLIER, WHERE THE span of the I-580 connector once stood, Myers’s superintendents had already arrived. Over the next few days, they set up a field office in a small trailer. Dozens of porta-potties sprung up. Caltrans and subcontractors worked out of shipping containers, and floodlights were arranged for night work. Kempton deployed his most trusted engineers to the job site for day and night shifts, ready to approve plans on the spot, and his personal phone line was open 24 hours a day.

The team’s first concern was to stabilize the damaged columns that held up the overpass and install scaffolding for the workers. Replacing the columns could take weeks. The concrete columns were protected by metal casings, which were scorched but intact. Inside, however, much of the concrete had cracked. Myers initially wanted to replace the columns entirely, but decided instead on a novel solution: He and his team chipped away and removed the cracked concrete inside the casings about 8 feet down, where the concrete was solid. Then, they inserted five-inch-diameter steel pipes inside the metal casing for support and filled the casing with fresh concrete. The original columns were salvaged.

In Sacramento, Myers worked the phones. In all, he lined up 16 subs and suppliers. He also called Douglas at Stinger. “Order the steel,” Myers barked.

Douglas tried to object. Stinger was waiting for shop drawings —the plans with specific dimensions of the beams. “But we’ve
still gotta do the plans—” “Order the fucking steel!” Myers yelled again.

Typically custom-order girders are made out of a single plate and shipped out directly from the plant. But that would take two months. Instead, Douglas decided to source the stock plate, then cut and weld it in his own shop.

Nancy Henderson got on the phone and called steel suppliers around the country. A shop just outside Pittsburgh, in Sewickly, Pennsylvania, had the only in-stock supply in the correct grade and length of the 2-inch plate needed to make the girders’ top and bottom sections (called the “flanges”). In Texas, she found the remaining one-inch plate needed for the
girders’ center section (the “web”).

When the steel arrived at the Stinger workshop, the team laid the plates on an enormous table. Workers sparked up a plasma torch—a device mounted on a robotic arm that sends an electrical current through pressurized gas to create a plasma beam, which can reach upwards of 20,000 degrees Celsius. The beam cuts the plate into strips according to dimensions programmed on a computer.

Then, the individual plates were welded together by hand to create the beam. Welding is precision work, with considerations including angle, speed, weld heat, and cooldown to avoid the creation of tiny cracks, gas bubbles, or other imperfections on the surface of or inside the welded joint. Without exact dimensions from the shop drawings, Stinger worked based on estimates, leaving length to spare so the girders could be cut to size once they had the field dimensions from Myers.

The beams, about 68 feet long by 4 feet high, were suspended from overhead bridge cranes on thick hoists, with workers in overalls and gloves guiding them by hand. In the dry Arizona heat, clanking steel and the spark-shooting welding guns filled the night as the crews worked 24 hours a day in two shifts. Everyone pulled overtime.

Finally, the official measurements arrived. Kempton had dispatched four Caltrans inspectors to Stinger’s workshop so the plans could be greenlit on the spot. Nancy Henderson and the Caltrans team gathered over the plans on a table, and by the end of the day, Caltrans approved the shop drawings. Stinger could now cut the girders to the exact measurements and start shipping them out.

MYERS LOVED THE RUSH AT THE beginning of a job. He was on his phone constantly, calling each of his subs daily, if not hourly. It wasn’t just the money or the prospect of another helicopter, Cessna, or sports car. He loved finding solutions to problems others couldn’t solve. It gave him a sense of purpose, of doing right by the public.

Myers mostly left his crews alone to do their jobs, but he’d show up at the job site wearing a hard hat and dress shirt tucked into slacks to check in. “You don’t get this shit together right now, you’ll never do another job for me!” he would sometimes yell. The entire company was built in C.C.’s image: Everyone worked their asses off because the boss did, too.

With the steel procured, Myers’s next priority was the bent cap, a massive beam made of concrete and rebar that sits on top of the columns, spanning the width of the overpass. The Maze’s original bent caps were poured in place. To do that, Myers would need to build the falsework—a temporary structure to support the permanent one—on top of the columns, make the forms for the bent cap, put in the rebar support structure, and pour the concrete. This would slow the job considerably, since his crew would have to repair the columns first, and then wait for the bent cap to come to strength.

So Myers came up with an idea: He would have the bent cap made off-site, then trucked to the Maze. This meant work on the columns and the bent cap could be done simultaneously.

Even before Myers had bid on the Maze job, he called Phil French, an old friend who ran Con-Fab California, a manufacturer of big concrete structures. French was based out of a dusty 20-acre yard in Lathrop, about 60 miles east of San Francisco.

“Give me your best price,” Myers told him, “because I want you to do the job.”

French gave Myers a quote, and Con-Fab got the go-ahead. French would build it at his workyard and haul it over to Oakland by truck, which would present significant challenges of its own. Caltrans sent the bent cap’s design to Con-Fab.

Building a bent cap is like making an enormous Jell-O mold with concrete. First, crews built a rectangular mold made of coated plywood. Inside it they created a steel cage of rebar that looked like a medieval prison cell. The form had to be built at an angle so it could sit on two columns of different heights, one a few feet higher than the other, to match the slope of the overpass. Finally, a cement mixer poured highstrength, fast-setting concrete, mixed at the company’s batch plant.

Precision was paramount. French’s team placed rows of ⅞- diameter bolts on the vertical face of the block. The bolts extended two inches out; this is where the girders would attach.

Normally, a job like this takes up to three months, between generating shop drawings, sourcing materials, and submitting to the state for reviews and approval. But like the girders, Caltrans approved Con-Fab’s drawings in a day.

The 55-foot-long structure was poured on Sunday, May 13, and ready to be erected by Tuesday, three days ahead of schedule. French’s team made sure that the concrete was strong enough and that the bolt measurements were correct. An error of a fraction of an inch would cause days of delays.

The bent cap was the first structural element ready for installation, a sign to the public that Myers’s breakneck plan was working. The only problem: Myers and French had to move a massive piece of concrete that weighed as much as a blue whale some 60 miles from Lathrop to Oakland. Most roads couldn’t handle the load.

BACK IN ARIZONA, CARL DOUGLAS was ready to ship the first pair of girders to California. It was May 14, a week into the job. Douglas was feeling good. Then he hit a snag.

As the girders stood upright on the back of a truck, Stinger’s quality control inspector checked the welds using an ultrasound scanner. The scan shoots a sound wave through a wand, via an oil-jelly coating, and a screen shows what’s going on inside. A clean scan yields no images, confirming that the sound wave passed through a seamless weld. Blips on the scan indicate variation in the weld.

Welds can go wrong if you make them at the wrong angle, with the wrong level of heat or length of heat exposure, or if contaminants like other metals or gasses get trapped inside the steel. Even a slight imperfection—a gap, microscopic crack, or weird angle in the grain of the metal—can develop into massive structural weakness.

The inspector found a defect. He alerted Caltrans’s welding inspector, stationed in Arizona for the duration of the job, who confirmed the result with his own instrument.

According to Caltrans standards, if any defects were found in a weld, it would need to be gouged out and redone. That could happen twice. But if a defect was detected a third time, it triggered a review process that could take days. This was the second defect in the same weld, so it was the last opportunity to get it right. The girders were expected in California the next morning.

Henderson and shop superintendent Eddie Hallam walked over to the girders. “What’s our plan?” Henderson said.

Hallam was a veteran welder, although he had long ago put down his torch to supervise his team. “I don’t want it to be one of my guys that messes it up,” Hallam said. “I’m going to take this and get it done.”

The Caltrans rep nodded.

Hallam climbed onto the trailer, strapped on his welding hood, and fired up the torch. Sparks flew as he tore into the weld.

When the new weld cooled, the inspector tested it again. The weld was good. The I-beams were ready to ship out. Before they left, a Stinger employee grabbed pieces of chalk and wrote on one of the new girders: “To the people of Oakland, California, from Stinger Welding, Coolidge, Arizona.”

TO GET THE BENT CAP FROM LATHROP to Oakland, Myers and Phil French subcontracted Reeve Trucking in Stockton, 10 miles north of Lathrop. Donnie Reeve, the 55- yearold owner, was raised on a farm like Myers. He loved Harleys and tractor pulling competitions and had a tattoo of a raging bull on his left arm. His company, launched in 1976, had about 150 trucks and 850 trailers and a reputation for being able to haul any load.

“We gotta have a good driver, Donnie,” French told him. “We gotta have your best truck.”

Reeve spent most of his days behind a desk, but he still got an adrenaline rush on the big jobs. “Don’t worry about it, Phil, I’ll do it myself,” he said. The bent cap was about the heaviest load of his career. He decided to use his own truck for the job.

But a driver was only half the problem. The most direct route from Lathrop to the Maze was the Altamont Pass, a section of elevated road that couldn’t support the load Reeve would be hauling. So Reeve was forced to take another, more challenging route: the old Pass Road. It was winding, steep, and as narrow as a country lane.

In the afternoon, Reeve pulled up to the yard and watched as Con-Fab crane operators at the Lathrop plant lowered the 244,000-pound bent cap onto his 11-axle truck-and-trailer unit. The bent cap was so big it took three trailers attached to the rear of Reeve’s truck to carry it. The entire contraption had a total of 74 wheels.

The bent cap was lowered from a type of crane called a travel lift—an enormous yellow gantry on wheels with a system of straps and cables, often used to lift boats out of water. When the weight of the load settled onto the combined trailers, they sunk down, sending out a series of sharp creaks.

The yard was buzzing. News choppers flew overhead. Channel 2 was already on the ground. Reeve, dressed in an orange safety vest with his unruly hair peeking out of a red hard hat, did a nervous on-camera interview, but inside he was proud. He loved showing off.

They couldn’t place the bent cap on the Maze until the lower I-880 was closed for traffic. So they waited until evening to ship out. Around 6 p.m., Reeve set off. It was calm and clear, a beautiful night. The truck had so many beacon lights, it looked like a carnival ride, with an OVERSIZE LOAD sign on the front bumper.

A team of California Highway Patrol cars led the caravan, blocking off every intersection. Another CHP car was Reeve’s pace car. Then came Reeve, and behind him was his son, Donnie “Spike” Jr., trailing in a second truck in case Reeve’s own truck broke down.

As Reeve approached the Altamont pass, he began a climb with a 7 percent grade. That’s not much to the naked eye, but consider that on federally funded road, the maximum grade is 6 percent. Reeve’s truck had an enormously powerful ISX 600 Cummins engine with 600 horsepower and 2,050 lb-ft of torque. But even with that motor, this was going to be tough.

The transmission in Reeve’s truck had 18 speeds, and it required a mental map that took years of driving to develop. Reeve approached the incline at 55 miles per hour in 15th gear, and needed to shift all the way down to third and slow to about 14 miles an hour. The shifts had to be fast and fluid—if he stalled at that grade, he wouldn’t be able to get going again. The delay would be hours. Myers, watching the clock for the load to arrive, would be pissed.

As the news helicopters transmitted the action live, the dispatcher reached Reeve on the radio. “Donnie,” his voice crackled, “I hope you’re not picking your nose. I’m watching you on the news!”

“Leave me alone, Terry!” Reeve said, and hung up. He shifted down to third, practically willing his enormous load up the hill. Then he reached the top. He was in the clear.

Reeve started to relax when he hit the new freeway at Livermore. CHP led him to University Avenue on I-80 in Berkeley. At 8:15, he pulled up to the MacArthur Maze on an elevated ramp, next to the destroyed section of the I-580. When Reeve got out of the truck, Kojak greeted him. “Oh, I see they sent the rookie!” he joked.

News cameras were on the scene, which meant that Myers was there, too. Placing the bent cap would make or break the project. He walked a television reporter through the procedure, hiding his nerves about whether it would fit.

At 8:50 p.m., cables from two cranes, stationed on either side of the I-80 ramp, hooked around the bent cap and slowly moved it to rest atop the repaired columns. The crew used laser measurement devices to guide it—red dots, essentially a laser pointer. The girders needed to bolt onto it, and the margin of error was an inch or two.

As Myers watched from beside the news cameras, his attention shifted to the girders, which were supposed to go up two per day once they arrived from Arizona. They’d been fabricated using guesswork—Carl Douglas’s team was moving so fast they weren’t sure how long the beams needed to be. After Myers sent measurements, Douglas had adjusted the length, but no one would know if they fit until they were actually there.

THE FIRST TRUCKS ARRIVED AT THE Maze around midnight. The sky was jet black and the evening air was cool. A small media village had grown beneath the Maze, and dozens of reporters looked on. Myers gave the signal, and a crane operator lifted the first girder up to the ramp.

The I-580 was illuminated by floodlights, alongside three stadium lights some 40 feet in the air. All of Kojak’s guys had received safety training for working at heights, and they wore harnesses, but in Kojak’s mind, you were either born to work at height, or you weren’t. Kojak remembered working jobs near the Arizona-California border 70 feet off the ground with no harnesses whatsoever.

Kojak’s guys walked with practiced ease on scaffolding about 20 feet high. Below, craning their heads, Myers and his team, engineers, construction workers, and Caltrans officials watched anxiously. The end of the first girder was slowly lowered by crane into a raised pad on the bent cap. The length was good. Once in place, Kojak’s builder stood on top of the bent cap, leaned over, and with a gloved hand slid in the first bolt and twisted.

The bolt fit. Myers exhaled.

Now they needed to do it 11 more times.

AT THE MAZE, THE GIRDERS CONTINUED to arrive from Arizona in twos, and the crews often waited until 1 a.m. for the drivers to roll in. But on May 16, four were due in, and it was already past midnight—a flat tire somewhere in the California desert had delayed the load. Everything was set up, surrounding roads closed, the wood and rebar that would go on top of the girders to support the deck—precut, labeled, stacked.

A superintendent sent one of his men to drive east on the freeway. “Tell me when you see the trucks,” he told him. As minutes passed, Myers grew uncharacteristically nervous. If the last girders weren’t in place, it would cost him a day—and $200,000 of the bonus.

The Alameda County Patrol stationed cars 20 miles away at the Carquinez Bridge. When they spotted the truck crossing the bridge, the patrol cars flipped on their lights. The truck was cruising at 85 miles per hour. The sentry called. “Get ready,” he said, “they’re coming.”

The girders arrived at 3:45 a.m.

The lower I-880 needed to reopen by 8:30 a.m. Myers barked something into his phone, walking toward the construction crews. Ten minutes later, cranes were lifting a girder into position, but the workers were now having trouble with the bolts.

Kojak had seen enough. He climbed up the scaffolding, which was lit by the industrial stadium lights. A row of bolts on one side of the girder had been overtightened—there was no wiggle room to insert the bolts on the other side. Kojak’s guys loosened the bolts slightly, and Kojak popped in the other row, screwing in each nut by hand.

The lower I-880 opened to traffic right on time.

THE NEXT DAY, A CONCRETE EXPERT named Mike Donovan sat at his computer at the headquarters of Central Concrete, a maker of high-performance concrete based in San Jose, and entered a code—a formula for a patented combination of cement, sand, rock, and chemicals. Central had 1,400 recipes, and the surface of the I-580 would require a highly specific blend of materials custom calibrated for the roadway, considering factors like weather, time, and traffic volume.

Mixing concrete might look simple: Balance the proportions of a few basic ingredients—cement, rock, sand, water, binding materials, and chemical additives that control how fast it all hardens. But the number of permutations is near infinite. Concrete mix is rated in pounds per square inch (psi), a measurement of its ability to carry loads or handle compression. The higher the number, the stronger the concrete. Jobs without a rush typically used a concrete mix of 3,000 psi, which takes roughly 28 days to cure, or come to strength. But Myers only had a week, so he went with a “hot concrete”—a high-strength, rapid-drying concoction that costs as much as four times the regular blend.

Donovan’s code arrived at Central’s plant in Oakland, and soon ingredients shot from silos above the tower onto a moving belt then into a mixing drum, where they churned with water. The concrete was then dumped via a large funnel into mixers on the back of Central’s trucks. Within minutes, the vehicles were driving south toward the MacArthur Maze, their barrels rotating to ensure the concrete didn’t dry out.

Meanwhile, a truck carrying a trailer with a row of 400-gallon plastic vats filled with chemical accelerators pulled up to the job site. When the concrete arrived, the chemicals were added to the mix to reduce the time the concrete would take to cure. Then the mix was poured from chutes onto the deck platform and raked smooth.

By noon, Myers’s crew had laid the entire deck of the I-580, the last major step before opening. They covered the damp concrete with layers of burlap and doused it with water to prevent cracking. Because of the mix used, the repaired roadway would be the strongest part of the MacArthur Maze.

ON MAY 24, 17 DAYS AFTER MYERS won the bid, the road was ready to open. Guardrails were assembled and traffic lines painted, but in the morning, just as Kojak was about to send a team to move the temporary K-rail barriers blocking the freeway, he noticed a scrum of people on the road with cameras: a film crew. Caltrans hadn’t expected the job to be done so quickly, and had okayed the production of a commercial on the empty overpass.

Kojak approached the film crew and told them to clear out. There were about 15 people with film equipment and CHP cars stationed nearby. They had permission from Caltrans, the filmmakers replied.

Kojak called Myers, who almost blew a lid. “Fucking idiots,” he barked before hanging up to call Caltrans. Three hours later, while Kojak cursed in the background, the CHP told the film crew to wrap up.

Within minutes of the film crew clearing the roadway, the Krail was gone. Caltrans had capped the bonus at $5 million, so opening a few days early didn’t make a difference financially for Myers’s crew. But that didn’t matter. This was the moment of pride for Kojak—the moment the job was truly done. Kojak wasn’t the type to celebrate a job with ribbon cutting ceremonies. Most of the time, when the work was over, Kojak was on the road heading somewhere else.

“Let’s open this motherfucker and go home,” he said.

THE NEXT DAY, GOVERNOR Schwarzenegger walked to the microphone, his muscled frame highlighted by a pinstripe gray suit with an open-collar white shirt. He stood before the columns of the I-580 overpass, still streaked with black from the flames, just 25 days since the fire. “They finished up 32 days quicker than expected,” Schwarzenegger said. “C.C. Myers has again performed miracles.” He gestured to Myers far down the line of dignitaries. Myers smiled. He was proud of his team.

As traffic flowed on the I-580, commuters honked and flashed thumbs up at the ceremony below. Myers’s thoughts drifted to his next big job: replacing a huge chunk of earthquake vulnerable deck on the Bay Bridge, just a few miles away.

It would be another Myers specialty: fast, tough, high-risk, high-reward. Myers had honored his word and opened the MacArthur Maze in time for the Memorial Day weekend. The next deadline? Labor Day.