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Father, son linked to Tappan Zee bridges

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 6:12 p.m.

NEW YORK — About six decades ago, John Creegan, then in his early 20s, got a telephone call about a job to help build a bridge across the Hudson River.

The trained ironworker and Korean War veteran had recently married and was thrilled to get work. Full of enthusiasm when he arrived at the foot of the budding Tappan Zee Bridge, Creegan soon realized he had a lot to learn.

“One morning on the job, I heard these fellows say, ‘Here comes High Pockets! Here comes High Pockets!' I didn't have a clue what they were talking about,” the now 83-year-old recalled last month from his longtime home in Amawalk.

As the legendary safety inspector with the American Bridge Company limped over, the men scrambled to put on their helmets.

The workers had dubbed the inspector “High Pockets” because he was always hiking up the waist of his pants, making his shirt pockets bunch up around his neck, Creegan said.

“Everybody told me he had a wooden leg — I don't know if that's true or not — but when he was around, you had to have your helmet on, your shirt on because of the sun, your safety belt on, and make sure there was water for the men,” Creegan said.

Creegan, an ornamental ironworker, was among the thousands of men who helped build the Tappan Zee between 1951-55, considered one of the greatest construction feats of the time. Today, he is among a dwindling group of those workers still living.

What makes Creegan more unusual is that one of his sons, Peter Creegan, is a union leader in the $3.9 billion project under way to replace the 1955 crossing. Peter is one of six children of John Creegan and his wife of 60 years, Theresa Creegan; their four sons became ironworkers.

Peter Creegan was born in 1961 — six years after the Tappan Zee was completed. He will be in charge of coordinating ironworkers during construction of the bridge.

“It is pretty amazing,” he said. “He worked on the original, and I'm working on the second one — it must be rewarding for him.”

Over about two years, starting about 1953, John Creegan helped assemble steel railings and install them on the 3-mile crossing. Ornamental ironworkers handled the miscellaneous iron pieces of the span after the heavy structural beams were put in place.

“I never thought I'd see one of my sons involved in the bridge — not in my wildest dreams,” he said.

“I had a small part in it, and I didn't realize how important (the bridge) was until it was finished,” he said.

He remembers the confusion he felt the first time he heard a whistle blow and the men around him started packing their tools. A worker turned to Creegan and said, “Let's go, kid.”

“I said, ‘What's happened?' ” Creegan recounted. “He said, ‘Someone went down.'”

The whistle signaled that a man had died on the job. As a sign of respect on those occasions, work stopped and everyone went home, Creegan said. Three men were killed in accidents during the project.

Perhaps his fondest memory is of his longtime friend, a foreman from Rockland County he met his first day.

“My first day on the job I was scared stiff,” he remembered. “They hooked me up with a fellow by the name of Bill Spissinger. He was like a big, burly bear — rough and tough — but I took a liking to him and he took a liking to me. He said, ‘Stay with me, kid.' He was like my mentor, my guardian angel.”

Years after the Tappan Zee project, Spissinger became sick with cancer and couldn't find work. Creegan by then had contracting business and hired his former boss. Spissinger worked for Creegan for about a year before he died.

Though the Tappan Zee represents a special time in Creegan's life, he said he has accepted that it will be torn down to make way for a twin span.

“I understand that they will make it so people can walk or bicycle across, so it's not a lost cause. Something good will happen for other people,” he said.

Creegan said he looks forward to taking a trip over the bridge when it's completed.

“I don't know about walking, but maybe wheel this wheelchair across,” he said.

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