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Up All Night With Big Alma and Mom Chung

Our monthly study of uniquely Bay Area tribes.

Francisco Dominguez
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Armando Hurtado

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Mitch Heck

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Carmen Jackman

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The men and women working for contractor Barnard Impregilo Healy have a 25-minute commute to work—not bad for the Bay Area. Unlike your ride, however, theirs begins in a “launch box” and ends at a rock face 100 feet underground.

The builders are boring a 1.7-mile-long tunnel for the Central Subway line that will run from Fourth and King Streets to Stockton and Washington Streets. They operate two 750-ton boring machines—nicknamed Mom Chung and Big Alma, after the first female American-born Chinese physician and a San Francisco arts philanthropist—that burrow through an average of 60 feet of earth per day. Because two crews work alternating 12-hour shifts starting at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., the forward motion is constant. “The underground community is a tight-knit, highly specialized group,” says SFMTA program director John Funghi. “It’s dark, damp, humid, and confined down there.”

It’s also isolated. Lunch and bathroom breaks are taken in the tunnel—it would take too long to reach the surface—and there’s no Wi-Fi or cellular service. The workers communicate via light signals and a system of mine phones that resemble old-fashioned pay phones.

“Consistency and trust are everything in this job,” says Funghi. “You have to protect the person next to you.”

 

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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