No Time for Vertigo

Photo: Mark Bussell

Last week, 25-year-old Kevin Kelly became the city’s tenth high-rise-construction fatality this year when he fell nine floors from an Upper East Side condo tower. You’d think that might scare Justine Ida, one of the city’s few female ironworkers. She spoke to Tim Murphy.

When you’re up high, if you have a second to look around, you’re like, “This is freaking great,” but usually you don’t. It’s all business. You think about doing a good job and how much money you’re making. I’m 26. I live in Bensonhurst. I’m from Malone, a small town upstate. When I moved to the city, I did crappy jobs for a while, bartending or being a law-firm receptionist. I knew some guys who were working on the cleanup after 9/11. They said to me, “Get your welding license, and figure out the rest from there,” so I did.

I’ve had about seven jobs prior to this one, doing the reno of Lincoln Center. I was on the Williamsburg Bridge for two years, some of it at the top of the towers. That was 332 feet tall. Alice Tully is 105 feet—not really that high. I’ve never really had a scary moment. On my first job, when they asked me to weld something for the first time, I was like, “I’m a pretty girl, and I don’t want to do this.” But there’s so much more an ironworker does than weld. Everything is heavy. I don’t work out. The job puts me in shape. I don’t eat that much at work, but once it’s time to go home I’m like, I have to eat or kill everybody.

When I hear about another worker falling, it makes me nauseous. When that crane collapsed, the engineer in the cab fell backward like fourteen stories. That creeps me out a lot. But I have the belief that nothing will ever happen to me. I’m invincible!

I’m one of about ten women in Iron Workers Local 40, a union of about 1,200. Being one of the only women? It’s not awful. Yes, everybody makes Jennifer Beals–Flashdance jokes. But no. I am not that pretty. You don’t sleep with your superiors here. And I don’t strip. I want to climb the corporate ladder of ironworkers, so to speak. Physically, I’m not the weakest person, but my strength holds me back from doing some things. So I have to be smarter. I already don’t fit in because I’m a girl, so I might as well tell people what to do.

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No Time for Vertigo