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Ironworkers build new World Trade Center

New York ironworkers are putting the finishing touches on One World Trade Center, which will replace the Twin Towers destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They take pride in their work, a family tradition for many.

In June, President Barack Obama visited One World Trade Center - the single, tapered building that is replacing the Twin Towers in the New York skyline. In red marker, he wrote a message on a steel beam, to be placed at the very top: "We remember. We rebuild. We come back stronger!"

The tower has already surpassed the Empire State Building, becoming the tallest structure in the city. At 1,776 feet (541 meters), it will soon be the tallest building in the United States, the tallest in the Northern Hemisphere - and one of the most iconic skyscrapers in the world. Some days, it disappears into the clouds.

The lift goes as far as the 79th floor and you climb the rest of the way: along a staircase attached to the frame, with a spectacular view straight down to Ground Zero, then up ladders through gaps in the corrugated steel deck.

Leaders of the 'raising gang'

The only two men permitted to work at the summit without safety harnesses are Michael O'Reilly and Tommy Hickey, both from Irish-American families that built Manhattan in the glory days of steel. As connecters, they handle the most dangerous job on the raising gang, guiding beams into place and putting in the first bolt.

Mike O'Reilly (right) and Tommy Hickey

O'Reilly (right) and Hickey are the only ones allowed to work on the highest floors without safety rigging

"Hopefully my grandfather and my great-uncles are looking down on me and thinking 'he's doing a good job,'" Hickey said.

Their signal man is Peter Jacobs, a fifth generation ironworker from Akwesasne, a Mohawk homeland that straddles the Canadian border. After 30 years as a connecter, he is nearing retirement.

"Physically, it's a hard job, but you've got to bear with it," he said. "The family that I come from, we're not slouches. We give the men a good day's work. That's how we're taught."

A tragic family history

O'Reilly's father, Thomas, worked on the original Seven World Trade Center building. On October 7, 1985, he fell from a column, broke his spine in two places, and was paralyzed from the waist down. It was four days before Mike's 11th birthday - the day his childhood dreams of becoming an ironworker died.

Then, on September 11, 2001, terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers, killing more than 2,800 people. Seven World Trade Center was the last of the structures to fall.

"Until then, my feeling was that, although Dad was in a wheelchair, the building was there and it meant something that he had put it up," O'Reilly said. "Once it came down I thought 'what was it all for?'"

After joining the ironworkers union and completing his apprenticeship, the first project he worked on was the new Seven World Trade Center.

Peter Jacobs

Peter Jacobs, wearing a Bethlehem Steel hard hat from the 1970s, given to him by his step-father

"That was to honor him. He was so proud of me when it was done and it was a last hurrah, because not too much after that he wound up passing away. This One World Trade Center job is to honor the victims. That's how I feel about it. I'm doing it for the world, almost."

Proudest moment

The tower will not be ready for occupancy until next year. Its massive, largely ornamental antenna, which will give it the extra feet it needs to be the country's tallest building, won't be finished for another two months. But "topping out," when the beam bearing Obama's signature was lifted from the ground and bolted into place, was the raising gang's proudest moment. Jacobs, O'Reilly and Hickey were there to set the steel.

The 9/11 Memorial, seen from above

The workers have a spectacular view of the 9/11 memorial


"People are going to use it as a symbol, I guess, but it's just another job to me - and a very nice building," said Jacobs. "I'm not a prideful person, but it'll be a sense of pride, knowing that I made it. It's quite the accomplishment - something I can show my grandkids, when I have them."

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