The Fresh-Water Beast Beneath New York’s Streets

You’ve probably never heard of it, but the largest construction project in New York City history has claimed dozens of lives while chewing its way through bedrock for the past forty years—and the haunting memories are matched only by the grandeur of its ambition.

Don-re Carroll had been here before. He lived down the block. His flare for adventure was contagious. Anton and Geovanni were with him, as usual. It was the weekend and the late summer air hung heavy with a blanket of humidity. What was a group of adolescent boys to do? They had worked their way over from their usual meeting spot to the empty lot framed with orange construction tape on 181st Street in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx. They noticed a popped manhole and could not resist its lure.

This adventure would be far different from the last. On what would have been just another dog day in August of 1991, the trio of lifelong Bronx boys would discover a fragment of New York City that lurks at depths that go far deeper than a typical Saturday afternoon. Their mark would be felt for decades to come.

Pronounced dohn-dray, the bellicose twelve-year old had noticed the opportunity earlier in the day. For him, the construction site, poorly guarded and unstaffed on weekends, conveniently marked a route to adventure. Their first trip down the manhole revealed a narrow shaft just a few feet wide — the perfect width for boys their age. He and the others descended a few feet below street level, and after heading east down an equally narrow tunnel towards Davidson Avenue, they discovered a dead end.

Many Morris Heights locals are not aware of the water tunnel or even Don-re, but some still fight to keep his name alive.<span class="_Credit">Nicholas Reale</span>
Many Morris Heights locals are not aware of the water tunnel or even Don-re, but some still fight to keep his name alive.Nicholas Reale

Undeterred, the group made rounds in the neighborhood, hoping to rally others to come join them. Their efforts spiked some interest, but most thought the idea of crawling around amongst sewers too scary or stupid. And so, at around four p.m., Don-re left his apartment at 58 West 180th Street and returned to the site, accompanied by Geovanni, Anton and their friend Jose, while a few others held back. This time they made their way in the opposite direction down the shaft. After crawling for about a block and a half, beneath the intersection with Harrison Avenue, all but Jose slid down a ten-foot drop that prevented any point of return, the sleek cylindrical walls of the shaft proving impossible to scale. At the helm, Don-re forged ahead, determined to not get caught in a dead-end like the one they had previously encountered. Geovanni and Anton stayed put and listened intently for him to call out.

All they heard was a faint, but crisp, ffffftt.

Time began to warp for the two, with the following minutes lasting both an eternity and an instant. Once it became clear that Don-re might not return, that something might have indeed gone awfully wrong, Jose returned above ground to seek help. Chaos engulfed the circles of neighborhood kids, who scrambled quickly to retrieve rope and lighters from a nearby bodega. Their efforts were in vain, as they lost grip of the rope before it reached their friends. Unsure what else they could do, they dialed 911.

A legion of first responders soon swarmed the area. They quickly rescued Geovanni and Anton, but Don-re was nowhere to be found. A few held out hope that he might have descended further into the sewers, waiting to be rescued. Once blueprints of the shaft were summoned, however, it became chillingly clear to the responders that Don-re had stumbled upon a vertical shaft that carried him to his death some 500 feet further. It was too shocking to believe, especially for Geovanni; he hadn’t even heard his friend scream.

The body was identified and retrieved in the early hours of the following morning. Department of Environmental Protection workers had to enter the subterranean network from an entrance three miles away in Van Cortlandt Park and trekked south beneath several neighborhoods before reaching the spot where Don-re fell. The incident quickly hit the headlines of local news outlets and mayor David Dinkins made an appearance to console both the neighbors and Don-re’s family.

A map retracing Don-re’s steps the night of his death.
A map retracing Don-re’s steps the night of his death.

Many were appalled at the lack of security at the construction site. The open manhole had invited trouble, tempting behavior that, though reckless, was on the whole benign. As The New York Times claimed, the three boys were simply reenacting scenes from their favorite TV show, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

But life reverted back to normal soon thereafter, and just a few days later kids could be found playing at the same construction site.

In the midst of the commotion, the idea that Don-re died in a sinister, geographically nameless labyrinth of sewers took potent form throughout the community. No one gave the where of the incident much thought. Despite being swallowed whole, he barely scratched the surface of something much more expansive. What he found had been lurking hundreds of feet beneath the streets of New York for over twenty years, carving its way through the bedrock of four boroughs. It continues to swell and grow to this day. It is a beast, indiscriminate in what it eats, and awesome in scale. East Side Access, the Second Avenue Subway, and the extension of the 7 train — massive tunneling projects that garner significantly more media attention — all combined do not compare in size. Don-re Carroll unwittingly fell into City Water Tunnel 3, to date the largest construction project ever undertaken in New York City’s history. A long-needed addition to the city’s fresh water supply network, it is still incomplete. Vital and ambitious, though deceptively simple and curiously anonymous, the tunnel embodies all of the hallmarks that make great infrastructure, while claiming the lives of Don-re and twenty-three others along the way.

* * *

On Katonah Avenue in The Bronx, near the entrance to Water Tunnel 3 that DEP officials entered to retrieve Don-re’s body, there is a memorial plaque that was installed in 2007. The plaque does not mention Don-re. Instead, the names inscribed belong to members of the Laborers’ Local Union No. 147. Known as the Sandhogs, these laborers have worked on nearly every major construction project in the city that has required subterranean work, from the caissons of the Brooklyn Bridge to the Holland Tunnel to the subway. They proudly consider their work on the city’s three water tunnels a cornerstone of their repertoire, and claim in their mission statement on their website that, “New York City ran out of adequate drinking water more than a hundred years ago. Without the tunnels built by sandhogs New York would have ceased to exist around the time of the American Civil War.”

City Tunnel No. 3 is accessed by just a few anonymous brick sheds, this one buried down an unmarked road in Van Cortlandt Park.<span class="_Credit">Nicholas Reale</span>
City Tunnel No. 3 is accessed by just a few anonymous brick sheds, this one buried down an unmarked road in Van Cortlandt Park.Nicholas Reale

Many Sandhogs are a part of generations of laborers, and it is not uncommon to see fathers and sons working side by side. They hail from Ireland, Sweden, the West Indies, and elsewhere; ethnic diversity is just as key to the union’s identity. Regardless of personal issues between members aboveground, they set them aside among tightly wound ranks belowground. Each member goes through a stringent application process, during which their work ethic and ability to respect the chain of command is tested.

Richie Fitzsimmons of Local 147 at the Tunnel Workers Memorial outside Van Cortlandt Park.<span class="_Credit">Nicholas Reale</span>
Richie Fitzsimmons of Local 147 at the Tunnel Workers Memorial outside Van Cortlandt Park.Nicholas Reale

Their work is onerous, but they revel in it. When a member perishes on the job, it’s as personal as losing a brother. The memorial at Van Cortlandt Park is a testament to these bonds. Each worker is honored with a sewer cap, their name and the year in which they died etched on its surface. A cluster of dates from the first years of construction in the 1970s reflect a time when “mucking out,” a crude drilling method that involved a combination of excavation and dynamite, led to far more fatalities — almost a man a mile.

Richie Fitzsimmons, business manager of Local 147, was largely responsible for the memorial. He forms the core of three generations of tunnel workers — his father before him, and his sons after. Water Tunnel 3 has been the primary focus of his career since he took over in 1992. He is what one would call a worker’s worker, his passion for water supply systems being overshadowed only by his fidelity to the union.

“My job is to secure the contract, solicit the work through the city and various political action committees and agencies, getting it going … and policing. Say [the contractors] don’t pay the right wage,” he says. “I’m the one that goes after them saying, ‘You’re two dollars off … you gotta pay up or I gotta get the lawyer, you gotta solicit here, it’s gonna cost you money, it’s gonna cost me money … Just pay, the lawyer’s gonna charge you a lot. Don’t get the lawyers involved.’ That’s my favorite saying.”

His faith in workers is what helps bring the men, many of whom hail from drastically different walks of life, together. “Most people come here with the intention of work…they want to get off the dole. They say, ‘I never wanna go back to that. If I get a job I’m going to work til the day I die.’”

And when that day comes, their names will not be cast into obscurity; Fitzsimmons is sure of that. He carefully curated every aspect of the memorial, from securing the easements to raising the funds. His pride for it is palpable. “When you drive by it you’re forced to think about how we get everything. You just don’t turn on your faucet for nothin’ … there’s a whole life to this system.”

The city draws its water from sources over 125 miles away through gravity alone.<span class="_Credit">Nicholas Reale</span>
The city draws its water from sources over 125 miles away through gravity alone.Nicholas Reale

Such a system is marked by its ingenuity, the brilliance of which can be attributed to simplicity. When completed, the tunnel will draw from three watersheds up to 125 miles away. The tunnel itself will be sixty miles in length and twenty-four feet in diameter at its widest, transporting over 1.5 billion gallons of water each day through gravity alone.

“It was designed to be perfect,” says Fitzsimmons. “It’s Romanesque. Every building in this city has adequate pressure to bring water right to the faucet in every room up to the fourth floor without pumping.” That water is pure, only lightly chlorinated and fluoridated, and it is protected from future development by city-owned land throughout the Hudson Valley that creates a buffer zone around its sources. Ninety percent of it requires no filtration, allowing residents access to water that is more than merely safe to drink; it naturally accrues minerals in the soil along its journey to the city.

“Filtration equals failure!” Fitzsimmons exclaims. His rallying cry can be heard in the compressed air chambers where he and many others have strived to push the tunnel each inch further toward the end through the schist, granite, and quartz that make up the region’s bedrock.

But the tunnel isn’t expected to be completed until 2025, a full fifty-five years since construction began, back in a time when the city was on the verge of a crippling financial crisis. The need for the tunnel goes back even further, to the 1950s, when New York’s bourgeoning and increasingly sprawling population made the two older tunnels — completed in 1917 and 1935 — insufficient. A Board of Water Supply report dating from 1967 urged construction to commence later that year, with a target completion date set for 1985.

“They just didn’t realize what they were getting into,” he admits. “The schist was harder than what they thought it would be; it was all very unpredictable.” The very nature of the geology, coupled with several recessions, has led to the extended delays and a price tag in excess of $5 billion — twenty times the Board of Water Supply’s initial budget.

* * *

An arm of an international organization, “local” for Local 147 technically refers to New York City proper. But, for those working out of the small office on Katonah Avenue, the word bears strong ties with Woodlawn, a nearly suburban enclave of the most northern reaches of The Bronx. Irish blood runs thick in its gently sloping streets, though in recent years many Irish families have moved out and been replaced by Albanians. A row of pubs running the length of Katonah Avenue remain as a fixture to the area’s ethnic heritage. The area is pleasant, if a little remote, and has somehow managed to avoid both the frenetic redevelopment witnessed in the city’s other outer boroughs and the urban atrophy still evident just a few neighborhoods away.

Contrast Morris Heights, the neighborhood Don-re called home, in the western Bronx near the banks of the Harlem River. Having been through hell and back in the ’70s and ’80s, today the neighborhood is on firmer footing. The dominant ethnicity here is Hispanic — predominantly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans — though a cohort of African-Americans make up over a third of the population. A significant number of households still subsist on less than $25,000 per year. Most live in modest six-story apartment buildings, townhouses, and detached single-family bungalows. Street life is relaxed but active; locals will stop often to interact with each other on sidewalk corners and from apartment windows. Though primarily residential, unassuming establishments — a daycare, an Islamic center, a beauty parlor — take up the ground floor storefronts of a few buildings, adding a few more opportunities for neighborly mingling.

Morris Heights from the Burnside Avenue Subway station.<span class="_Credit">Nicholas Reale</span>
Morris Heights from the Burnside Avenue Subway station.Nicholas Reale

Sandra Nelson, a resident of the neighborhood for forty years, commands much of this interaction from her second-floor apartment on Grand Avenue. Known as the neighborhood “auntie,” passersby will often stop beneath her window to chat about everything from the weather to gossip. A fixture here as long as most can remember, Nelson recalls a time when most of the townhouses were empty lots and the park was littered with broken glass and unkempt weeds. Much of this began to change in the years after Don-re’s death, as property developers, hoping to cater to middle class homeowners, began to construct much of the housing stock that exists today.

“There are more people [out] on the street, nowadays,” Nelson, originally from Scotland, says through a thick accent. “Once the developers began settling in and building those houses, the area became much less quiet. The community is as strong as it’s ever been.”

Her daughter, Beverly, was about the same age as Don-re when he passed away, and offers a counter-perspective of the area. She claims that, though the neighborhood suffered much more from poverty while she was growing up, today concerns of violence persist. Gesturing down the hill on Grand Avenue to a bodega, she mentions a recent incident involving an altercation between two men that led to one of them shooting the other. She points out that the incident, and others like it, are generally isolated. “It’s more a matter of people not able to figure stuff out for themselves than anything,” she says, with a chuckle. “They aren’t smart enough to organize their violence.” With an eleven-year-old in tow, she nevertheless takes a more proactive stance in safeguarding her son than was the norm for her growing up.

“Back then we [the neighborhood] had more problems with drugs,” Sharon Dennis, Anton’s aunt, recounts. But she makes a point of isolating Don-re. “[He] was a very smart kid; his mother never had no trouble keepin’ him in school.

“Of course, he was just like any other kid that age,” she continues. “Running around, throwin’ stones, chasin’ girls.”

Sandra Nelson and her daughter, Beverly, lean out the window of their apartment in Morris Heights.<span class="_Credit">Nicholas Reale</span>
Sandra Nelson and her daughter, Beverly, lean out the window of their apartment in Morris Heights.Nicholas Reale

Many of Beverly’s friends, now grown women, recall a fiery Don-re. Rarely would he take “no” for an answer, and he would sometimes even become physical to get his point across. “He would rough us around, and really chase after us,” recalls Beverly. His bravado garnished mixed reactions from his female peers, with some having a few choice words for him.

“To be honest, I thought he was an ass,” one of Beverly’s friends cuts in.

But Beverly recalls, “He was also very protective of us. He wouldn’t let no other kids from other neighborhoods touch us. He’d go after them if they did.” Though small, Don-re bore a sinewy strength, which fueled his sense of adventure. One could often find him plodding about the neighborhood without a shirt on, calling out the names of friends to come out and play.

Geovanni, now in his late 30s, would play everything from football to balancing scales with Don-re, both of which the latter excelled at. He continues to live in the neighborhood across the street from his first home, and is now a father of two and an aspiring actor and singer. Any talk of the loss of his friend typically shuts him down, but he admits that he thinks of Don-re often.

Geovanni keeps Don-re alive in his personal voice recordings that he dictates to himself while brainstorming new material. He has considered both writing a book about his friend’s death and featuring a photo from a newspaper clipping from the aftermath on the sleeve of his album, “Truth Hurts.” But the memories impact him in profound ways, and his inability to put down in writing what happened haunts him; he even admits to a fear of heights and thrill rides. A fire in Geovanni’s old apartment claimed a newspaper clipping covering the incident with a photo of Don-re at the center. That marked the most significant loss of a tangible relic. And so, these recordings are some of the last remains to a life that lives on almost exclusively in the oral tradition.

For many of Don-re’s generation, he was the first person anyone knew firsthand to have died. The weight of his death has only become deeper, its edges only blurred as time has elapsed. Many of his friends now have children, and seeing them play in the streets sparks an ineffable but present anxiety that hits all too close to home. They recognize the feeling, but can’t quite put a finger on where it comes from or how it persists.

* * *

How Don-re is remembered is marked less by outright forgetfulness than it is by miscommunication. Richie Fitzsimmons distinctly remembers his death and can even identify the exact shaft he fell down. “Shaft 5 near Walton Avenue. I used to work there, actually.”

This jogs his memory. Whipping out a pen and a memo pad, he begins to draw a crude schematic of a space that he once knew intimately. He explains that someone had most likely removed the bolts to the interior shaft’s cover, allowing the three boys to slide down the first, shorter descent. A ninety-degree bend in the shaft created a blind spot, preventing the boys from noticing the 500-foot drop.

“This [bend] is to control the flow of water, slow it down. When a big amount of water bears down, you can’t build a wall strong enough to stop the weight. Water has to be controlled or it could be unbelievably destructive. It is so dense that you can use it to help you … or you can drown.”

The boys had entered the system long before any water would run through it. In this way, they were unable to pick up audible cues, like the sounds of gushing, to help them navigate.

Fitzsimmons is adamant that Don-re’s name is among those listed at the Tunnel Workers Memorial, and is crestfallen with disbelief when he returns to the site for a closer look. “His name should be right here…I’m sure of it…”

The twenty-three sewer covers bear a diverse mix of names. Lindlief. Moreno. Baqcuie. But no Don-re Carroll.

“I pushed for his name to be included, and I thought I got it,” he murmurs. “I said, ‘Name him. What’s the difference?’ But the DEP didn’t want it because he wasn’t a worker. They didn’t want to advertise that a civilian — a kid — died in the tunnel. I’m sure they’re embarrassed over that. They’re a good agency. They still think about it, I’m sure. They don’t want to see anybody get hurt.”

Glancing around the site, he can’t help but make note of a few improvements that could be made to the memorial: replacing the flag, cleaning the sewer caps, some general upkeep.

“I’m glad I got out here today,” he says.

Many of the locals in Morris Heights are not even aware of Water Tunnel 3 or the memorial to the Sandhogs, but are disappointed to hear that Don-re’s name is not among those listed. They shake their heads, offering a “Tsk, tsk.” One woman remembers her teacher calling Don-re’s name during attendance the following Monday. Only after she and several others spoke up about the incident, pointing out the news and the swarm of police in the area in the days after, did the teacher offer her condolences.

Even what has been reported has been contested, as Geovanni insists, “The only thing I didn’t like is that the news reporters said that we were playing Ninja Turtles. We not playin’ no Ninja Turtles. They just wanted to say that, just [to have] a title…” Title or not, the idea of the three boys taking to the sewers beneath the guise of Leonardo et al became salient enough that most neighbors believe such a motive to this day.

“He was just a kid when he died, but when he was there, he was a man,” Geovanni Rios said of his friend Don-re’s funeral.<span class="_Credit">Nicholas Reale</span>
“He was just a kid when he died, but when he was there, he was a man,” Geovanni Rios said of his friend Don-re’s funeral.Nicholas Reale

Nevertheless, the funeral for Don-re marked a moment of unity for the neighborhood, and Geovanni recalls a large, emotional turnout. But for Geovanni, the lasting impression is of his friend’s face.

“They cut his arms and sewed them back up for the funeral,” he says. “His face was all banged up, and when I saw him at the funeral he looked like a man. He was just a kid when he died, but when he was there he was a man. After that, I couldn’t go to no funerals.”

The memorial service was followed by a round of donations made by neighbors to the Carroll family. Soon thereafter, the Carroll family moved elsewhere in The Bronx, leaving a fracture in the fabric of the community. Don-re’s mother died a few years later, leaving a daughter, Shaquanda, and a husband who is now in hospice care. Shaquanda remains in contact with Beverly over social media, but has fallen out of touch with most in the neighborhood.

Don-re’s death presents a stark reminder of how infrastructure influences life beyond the essential services it provides. It can sculpt the many identities of a community — or erase them. Digging deeper into these public works reveals the awesome might that humans can build, so much so that one can find themself swallowed hole, their life reduced to filtered memories. Given the brevity of Don-re’s life and the time elapsed since his demise, people have conspired in ways that are at once both bizarre and charming, unified yet disparate, all to keep this boy alive. He lives on solely in the collective subconscious of those who knew him, poised for rebirth should his name float to the surface. And each Ascension Thursday at St. Barnabas Church, Fitzsimmons utters his name among those who lost their lives in what has become the longest running mass honoring laborers in United States history. Indeed, Don-re lives.

For the Sandhogs, life continues to flourish in the tunnel. Humble in their pursuits, they thrive on providing over nine million New Yorkers in the city and its immediate suburbs with Earth’s most essential resource, and the memorial to those fallen embraces that:

“The particulars pale in comparison to the dedication, bravery and stoicism of the workers who, without pretension, performed their mining and construction tasks deep underground.”

They and the tunnel bore on, fighting for a system that rarely attracts much attention beyond its failures in the eyes of a public that has formed a reactive culture around its upkeep.

* * *

Davidson Playground, built in the years since Don-re’s death, features a sprinkler for kids to play in.<span class="_Credit">Nicholas Reale</span>
Davidson Playground, built in the years since Don-re’s death, features a sprinkler for kids to play in.Nicholas Reale

A sultry summer day almost twenty-five years later, and it’s just as humid as that day in 1991, though the sky is a crisp royal blue. In Davidson Playground, a small park a block down West 180th Street from number fifty-eight, a group of kids play in the mist of a running sprinkler. Among them is a young boy wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt and bearing a striking resemblance to a young Don-re. He is entranced by his soccer ball as it levitates among the jets of water. One of the other kids cuts in and takes a slap at the ball, making it sail to the other side of the playground. The others dash off while he remains, blissfully engulfed by the water as it springs skyward.

* * *

Nick Reale was born on an archipelago off mainland America, and has been fascinated by our personal geographies ever since. He tells stories about how we find ourselves through our environment and the tension between the built and the natural. You can find his work at thisisnotreale.com.