By Harry Keaney
New York’s $6 billion, 60-mile third water tunnel has been called the biggest public works project in America. And at least a half dozen Irish Americas have been among the 24 who have died while working on the project since construction began in 1970, and which may not be completed until 2020.
Last Thursday, the first 13.5-mile segment of the pipeline was connected, and those who lost their lives were commemorated in a special ceremony in Manhattan’s Central Park. A ceremonial opening of the third water tunnel and a memorial plaque dedication at Central Park Reservoir, also known as Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, South Gatehouse at East 86th Street, took place.
New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani officially inaugurated the third tunnel and, during the ceremony, he paid tribute to those who lost their lives during its construction. A police officer standing on the wall of the reservoir played "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes after the mayor had read the names of those killed.
Also on Thursday evening, New York City’s Great Water Run, over four miles, took place around Central Park’s middle loop to commemorate the opening of the third tunnel. There was also a program of classical music and fireworks at the Kennedy Onassis Reservoir.
The tunnel is an engineering marvel, and it, and the underground workers — known as sandhogs — who carry out the dangerous excavation for it have captured the imagination and admiration of many. In 1987, former sandhog Thomas Kelly drew on his experiences working 800 feet beneath the streets of New York to write his first novel entitled "Payback."
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Among the Irish Americans killed while working the third water tunnel were: Michael McCafferty, 45, electrocuted July 18, 1971: Edward Dorsey, 39, killed when he drilled into an unexploded round in the tunnel on Feb. 21, 1973; John Murphy, 36, fell 95 feet down a shaft to his death on May 23, 1974, and John Cunningham, slipped on a tunnel boring machine and fell to his death on Sept. 11, 1996.
A full list of the those killed was published in a special article in the Irish Echo in March of last year. In fact, for every mile of the tunnel completed, a sandhog has lost his life, leading to the gruesome saying "a man a mile."
The third water tunnel will provide a safeguard in case of a breakdown in one of the other two tunnels, ensuring that the city, which uses about 1.5 billions of water a day, would still be able to carry sufficient water to residents. The existence of the third tunnel will also finally give engineers an opportunity to inspect the inside of the other two tunnels; they have never been examined since water began to flow through them in 1917 and 1936.