KOJE ISLAND, South Korea - As the sun rises over Chinhae Bay, thousands of workers in yellow hard hats and gray jumpsuits swarm toward the gates of the Samsung Heavy Industries shipyard from every direction.
"It's like a bees' nest of bikes," says Tacoma Narrows Constructors expediter Rudy van der Maat, standing to one side as a torrent of bicycles streams past.
For the past two years, Samsung welders have been piecing together the mile-long deck of the new Tacoma Narrows bridge, the final major component of the $849 million project. The deck is being built in 46 meticulously crafted sections, each of which contains about 400 tons of steel.
The first of three shipments of deck sections is expected to arrive at the Narrows in early summer, when they'll be hoisted into place by large gantry cranes.
Samsung's is the third-largest shipyard in the world. Every day, between 12,000 and 15,000 people work there, turning out from 35 to 50 ocean vessels a year.
The yard is a city unto itself and worlds away from typical American steel fabrication plants, which in comparison look like grimy relics from the Industrial Revolution.
The scale of the operation challenges the sense of reality.
Cranes as tall as 20-story buildings give the yard its own spiky skyline. Forklifts big enough to pick up houses and transporters the size of highway bridges scoot around the yard, carrying hunks of ships so big you have to lean your head back to take them in.
On foggy mornings, Koje Island and its surrounding chain easily could be mistaken for Washington's San Juans. Koje is among the largest, a chunk of bright velvet green jutting out of the blue.
Samsung's 141-acre shipyard is backed up against the steep green wall of mountains. With nowhere else to grow, the company is continuously pushing farther out to sea, building dikes and "reclaiming" more land for industry.
You Name it, they have it
The shipyard has its own heliport, its own fire department, an infirmary with an X-ray room, physical therapy facilities and ambulance service. It has its own fleet of buses, with 38 routes into the surrounding countryside to pick up and drop off workers.
The yard even has its own police force, which, among its other duties, writes parking tickets and issues traffic citations on the grid of wide streets that wind past massive fabrication shops, paint sheds and assembly yards.
The Narrows bridge project is sizable, even in this setting. It takes up the largest share of land of any project in the shipyard.
The bridge's fabrication shop, where raw sheets of steel are cut and welded, is longer than two football fields, plus end zones. Its single roof covers more than two acres of floor space.
like a demonic video game
Inside, the noise is intense, even with ear plugs. Magnetic cranes dart back and forth on overhead runners, sirens blaring as they go. The steady cacophony of motors, hissing air, grinders and sirens is punctuated by explosive concussions of steel on steel, creating an aural atmosphere that is like being trapped inside a demonic video game.
The apparent chaos is in fact tightly controlled and technically sophisticated.
Sheets of steel roll onto the line, tracked by computers. The steel is cut into proper shapes, like cookies out of a sheet of dough, with automated "plasma cutters" that use high-velocity jets of ionized gas. Technicians look for voids in welds with the help of X-ray equipment and portable ultrasound machines.
Outside, in the pre-assembly area, where pieces of the massive bridge are fitted together, Ryan Choi pauses for a few minutes to talk. Choi is Samsung's deputy manager for the Narrows bridge project. His face is obscured by his hard hat and a big black sun shield. His lips are the only visible moving parts.
Earlier that morning, the bridge's pre-assembly team gathered for their morning pep talk and exercises. The workers lined up in ranks, military fashion, with their team leaders in front, counting cadence as they stretched, wiggled their fingers and cracked their necks.
Now, in the heat of a 96-degree day, workers using hand-held grinders to buff down welds in the deck sections are dressed in full body suits, like scuba divers. Generators pump air into the suits to cool them down.
Choi says most married workers live outside the yard. Most single men and women live in company dormitories and eat in company cafeterias.
In their off hours, workers can use an athletic track, tennis courts, swimming pool, bowling alley and gym. There's a commissary for groceries and a school for employees' children.
Worker safety is a constant issue. A banner at the entrance to the yard boasts "Five million man hours without a lost time incident." Even so, the shipyard averages three to four deaths a year. Last year, Choi says, there were only two.
As he talks, an ambulance screams by with several worried-looking men following fast on motorbikes. They stop at a job site where a crowd has gathered. A few minutes later the ambulance and the motorbikes race past again, heading in the direction of the infirmary.
Red Flags mean Go, Go, Go
Samsung relies heavily on pride and group cohesion to maximize production.
Red and green flags are displayed at job sites throughout the fabrication shop to show whether workers are producing as fast as managers want them to. Green means they are on time. Red means they aren't. Everybody in the shop can see at a glance how each team is doing.
The Narrows job is behind schedule, and signs throughout the site urge greater speed and efficiency. A banner as big as a billboard near the peak of a building in the pre-assembly area reads "120 Day Recovery Fight to Get Back on Track."
On the way to the bridge work site, men stand at corners and wave signs, like American political candidates on election eve. The signs read "Tacoma Narrows Project: Let's Show Them What Korea Can Do."
Loudspeakers that reach into every corner of the yard are intended to motivate, too. In the morning it is upbeat, get-your-feet-moving Chuck Mangione. At lunchtime, a calming Chopin piano sonata wafts through the yard.
Workers at the Samsung yard are not unionized. Instead, Choi explains, they select representatives to committees that negotiate with management.
"Sometimes they (worker representatives) are very tough," he says. Thanks to their efforts, welders with 10 years of experience now make more than he does, he says.
"The office girls used to play up to me," he says, grinning. "Now they play up to the welders."
A beginning welder at Samsung's Koje yard makes $21 to $24 an hour. The figure is not directly comparable to American wages, however, because it includes the cash value of certain benefits, like food, housing and medical insurance.
Relatively high wages are why Korean shipyards are so threatened by China, where labor is a fraction of the cost, Choi says.
To remain competitive, Samsung has opened a China division in the Chinese city of Ningbo. Labor is cheap there, he says, but workers' productivity is lower, at least for the time being, because they lack the technology and skills.
To forestall the seemingly inevitable move of shipbuilding to China, the Korean government offers incentives.
For example, if young men go into infrastructure technology and construction after high school and stick with it for five years, the government dismisses their obligation to serve three years in the military.
"How can we improve our efficiency to remain competitive, that is our big question now," Choi says.
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Rob Carson: 253-597-8693