Nov. 20, 2012— -- The George Washington Bridge is a crown atop the New York City skyline, made of cables and steel beams, and for painters who have to teeter more than 600 feet in the air to give it a fresh coat, it's a test of nerves.
Almost one mile long and suspended over the Hudson River, the GW Bridge is the busiest bridge in the world. Hardly any journalists have ever been allowed to the top, but we were given a rare look at life atop this marvel of American engineering.
In order to get the $71,000-a-year job of painting the bridge, potential painters have to ace a series of tests. Getting to the top is the final exam, and about 90 percent of them fail.
"A large portion of them, when they get to this height, they determine there's a better way for them to make a living," said Pat Foye, the executive director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Although it would be easier to balance by looking down, the test is to look straight ahead. There is a net below to catch anyone who falls. The real danger is where the barrels of the bridge are round and sloping, as 24 lanes of traffic whiz below. The workers said none of their colleagues had ever fallen to their deaths, but there have been some close calls.
"There's been nine times that I've actually been scared but obviously up here you have to be conscious of where you are," Keith Schmitt said.
"People say, you know, 'you're crazy,' you know, 'you're fearless,' this and that," Christopher Lizotte said. "But as soon as you lose the fear being up here, that's when you're in trouble."
Another worker named Obec Gonzales said he has painted three bridges and has never fallen.
"In the morning when it's quietest, you're just up here by yourself, it's cool," he said. "Occasionally a helicopter goes by and you enjoy what you're doing."
There have never been any women on this job, but Gonzales has a daughter who might be a future candidate.
"I have a 10-year-old, she loves it," he said. "She tells everybody what I do. She really gets a kick out of me being up here, showing her the pictures painting the silver or painting the gray."
For all its stunningly beautiful vistas, there are real safety concerns. All of the workers wear two harnesses. Everything is securely attached because anything that falls could cause a traffic accident below, and sudden weather can change everything.
"These guys had a major hurricane blow through and it was a serious situation," Lizotte said.
When the severe wind hit, the painters were on a rig, hundreds of feet up. Gonzales said a tornado came close enough that it grabbed their rig, "brought it up in the air and slammed it down."
Despite those dangers, it is a beautiful place with more than 80 years of history, providing a rare view for all.