Diplomats gathered to celebrate the Western Hemisphere's longest single-span concrete arch bridge. Construction workers milled about the deck, a far more comfortable view than the one they captured sitting in a crane 900 feet above the Colorado River. Native Americans, whose land surrounds the span, blessed the massive project.
And two families watched as the $240 million Hoover Dam bypass bridge named after former Nevada Gov. Mike O'Callaghan and former NFL standout Pat Tillman was officially dedicated Thursday.
O'Callaghan was a decorated Korean War veteran and a popular governor who served Nevada between 1971 and 1979. His son, Tim O'Callaghan, said the family was humbled by the decision to name the bridge after their father. He added that it reflects O'Callaghan's strongest trait as a "bridge-builder."
"He could bring people together who were usually from extremes, from opposite ends. He would bring them together to find a middle," Tim O'Callaghan said, adding that those skills allowed him to monitor elections in Nicaragua and Iraq. "For us as a family, this is very humbling."
O'Callaghan, who also was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's high school history teacher, collapsed and died of a heart attack during a morning Mass in March 2004.
"I've never had a closer friend than Mike O'Callaghan," Reid told the hundreds of dignitaries, construction workers and government employees who attended Thursday's event. "He was born to serve others. I never had the honor of meeting Pat Tillman. I share the nation's admiration for him."
O'Callaghan and Tillman also never met but forged an unknown connection with their strong belief in patriotism.
Sickened by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Tillman threw away a lucrative contract with the Arizona Cardinals and joined the U.S. Army. He was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire in April 2004.
When Tillman's decision to leave football hit the television news, Tim O'Callaghan said, his father shot up from his living room chair. "He said, 'You know? I thought I had lost faith in this generation. I see there is hope in this generation,' " Tim O'Callaghan said, adding that it is fitting the two veterans share the bridge linking Nevada and Arizona.
Patrick Tillman, who has been engaged in a bitter battle with the U.S. military over the circumstances surrounding his son's death, spoke briefly to reporters.
"It's a compliment," Tillman said of the bridge's name. "I'm sure he'd be flattered. I am."
When asked whether the bridge will help keep his son's memory alive, Patrick Tillman, who has accused the government of lying about circumstances surrounding the shooting of his son, said flatly, "It will. That's a whole other issue. It is an impressive piece of work."
The public is invited to walk the bridge on Saturday between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.. The Federal Highway Administration has yet to set an opening date for the bridge and the walkway but expects it will be in the middle or end of next week.
The bridge spans 1,900 feet across the Colorado River, offering commuters and trucks a quicker and safer route between Phoenix and Las Vegas. The span carries Highway 93, a major commercial route, over the top of the switchbacks of the current highway, which crosses Hoover Dam, slowing and choking traffic.
Victor Mendez, the federal highway administrator, said the new bridge -- like Hoover Dam -- is "the right project at the right time." He noted that the dam created jobs during the Great Depression and brought water and power to the West. The bridge not only brought jobs but will foster travel and trade in what has been a traffic bottleneck, he said
The ceremony had political overtones.
Ray LaHood, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, placed the new bridge among the Obama administration's stimulus projects and used the occasion to tout a proposed $50 billion "down payment" to upgrade the nation's infrastructure.
"America can still build great things," LaHood said. "Not just in spite of economic hardships, but as a means of overcoming them. There are no Republican or Democratic bridges. There are no Republican or Democratic roads. Transportation is bipartisan."
Reid, meanwhile, slipped in a reference to his neck-and-neck re-election fight with GOP challenger Sharron Angle. He promised to keep pushing for a Boulder City bypass for "as long as I'm Nevada's senior senator."
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer expressed her amazement at the engineering that allowed the bridge to sprout out from the steep, rugged walls of Black Canyon.
"This bridge was built with human hands," Brewer said. "May God bless this bridge, and the men who built it."
Charles Funk is one of those 1,200 men.
Funk, who works for the Obayashi Corporation, operated high-line cranes 1,000 feet above the river. He wasn't a big fan of heights when he was hired but quickly learned to overcome his fears.
"It depended on your altitude. If you were high enough that you couldn't hear the noise on the ground, you didn't think about it," he said. "When you could hear the noise on the ground, that is when you realized how high you were."
Temperatures reached 130 degrees in the canyon on some summer days, and taking refuge in the shade did little good with the intense heat radiating off the rocks. The winds were brutal too; if gusts reached 35 mph, the cranes were shut down. In 2006, those strong winds knocked down cranes, causing a two-year delay.
Santos Lopez, a crane operator, said the job was risky because wind gusts could go from 5 mph to 25 mph in minutes. Lopez had to bring workers in from the arch when the gusts hit 25 mph, he said.
"Getting the guys off the arch was stressful," he said. "You had to keep cool, calm and do your job. There was zero tolerance for any mistakes."
From Lopez's vantage point, it was difficult to see the progress of the bridge. He checked on it the same way most tourists and excited residents did: He drove over Hoover Dam.
"It was a privilege and honor to be able to work on something of this magnitude," he said.