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MILLS RIVER — Phil Weber has made and repaired all kinds of structural steel creations, from solar panel frames to steep-grade home foundations to the roller coaster at Ghost Town in the Sky.
He's traveled across the South doing welding and steel fabrication work. He visited mental hospitals in three states in the Midwest because he admired the purposeful way they were designed. He once flew to Switzerland just to look at a bridge, although in his defense it is a very special bridge.
For all his adventures in welding and steel fabrication, though, he had never before gotten a job that took him to the top of the tallest building in the U.S. —the spectacular skyscraper known as the Freedom Tower, which replaced the Twin Towers that fell on Sept. 11, 2001.
It's tall achievement for a ordinary-looking welding shop on N.C. 280 in Mills River that most people would pass without noticing. Weber's creation, a 14-foot-4-inch camera boom, became a crucial tool that Time magazine used for a photo project that will be seen by tens of thousands if not millions of people.
Weber's work is not photography, although he likes to take pictures. Time's photography would not have happened without him. Steelworkers fastened his aluminum boom onto an anchor atop the spire of the new One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower.
It was the second camera boom Weber had made. He and his employees built a boom that held a camera for a Bausch & Lomb eye solution plant in Greenville, S.C.
"We took long pieces of 12-inch channel," he says, drawing a picture, "and then put in cross members periodically, because we had to go 54 feet. A suspended length of that sort is pretty tricky to do. The goal of this thing was to mount these cameras in a very stationary (way). They couldn't move, because they're monitoring barcodes."
The next link in the chain involves Weber's son, Nathan, a former West Henderson High School student who is now a Chicago-based freelance photographer for Time magazine, the New York Times and other media.
"It was a bit of a trick to do, and I was sharing this with Nathan," Weber said. "And Jon Woods (a Time senior photo editor) said we need a boom so we can hang this camera up here, and he says, 'Oh my dad does that kind of s---.'"
Woods contacted Weber last August.
"He asked me if I thought it could do something like that and I said I thought we could," he said.
Weber and his team at Portable Welding Service went to work.
"We were really pushed on this" in terms of time, he said. "It was a high anxiety job."
"I drew up a whole bunch of stuff, and the Port Authority shot it all down," he said. "They didn't want this because of that. They didn't want that because of this. So eventually we came up with the design that worked. We're always a little surprised when things work out."
He described the engineering this way: "The challenge is you need something with substantial tensile strength that has minimal deflection (or sag) over a long span, and it has to be light, because if you make it out of steel, it's too heavy. You can't carry it. So we made it out of 2½ inch, quarter-wall square aluminum tube."
In other words, it had to be strong and light, it had to resist strong wind currents, so the 7-pound camera did not shudder and shake, and it had to meet the many requirements of the Port Authority, which owns the World Trade Center and is very sensitive about anything on the tower.
'I've gotta make things'
As a youngster growing up in Chicago, Weber was not the classroom type.
"When I was 14 years old, I got into trouble, I did bad things," he said. "I was a bad kid. My dad bought me an oxy-acetylene welding torch, and we had a garage out in back of the house and I used to be back there all the time making stuff. It's an affliction. I've gotta make things. My hands cannot stay still.
"My dad taught me how to do that," he went on. "My dad was a renaissance guy. By trade he was an auto mechanic but he could save your soul while he tuned your car. He actually thought I was a blot on the neighborhood but I learned a lot from my father."
A chance decision brought Weber south.
When his brother's wife got a job teaching in Brevard, Weber came to the area, too. He raised his son in Mills River.
After getting his high school diploma in 1996, Nathan Weber enrolled at Randolph Community College, a technical school in Asheboro that offers a highly regarded photography program. As soon as class started, Nathan knew he had found his calling.
Father and son have traveled together to see buildings and structures that catch their fancy.
Weber became interested in Kirkbride buildings, the insane asylums that many states built from the mid to late 1800s. Based on the vision of mental health reformer Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, the buildings followed a plan for a central administration building flanked by two connected wings of tiered wards segregated by the sex of the patients and the severity of their illness.
Father and son also flew to Switzerland to see the Salginatobel Bridge, which soars 288 feet above the Salgina gorge.
Designed by Swiss engineer Robert Maillard and finished in 1930, the bridge was recognized as a World Monument (alongside other honored structures like the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty).
"When I saw it I sat down and cried," Weber said. "It's a kind of beauty that is more than just concrete and steel. This is the kind of stuff that makes life exciting."
Just a few weeks after the Time photo editor called, Weber traveled to New York with his boom and boarded a construction elevator to ride 104 floors up to the top of the tower. It was September, 12 years after the terrorist attack that destroyed the former buildings on that footprint.
Weber pointed on a 17-inch Apple computer screen to photos of the ironworkers — "These guys had biceps like my thighs," he says — as they fastened the boom in place. A helicopter hovered about a hundred yards taking pictures.
"There wasn't room for me" on the spire, Weber said. "I wanted to climb. I'm 68 years old and I said 'I wanna go' and they said 'there's no room.' It was kind of a disappointment. I was down on the communications level, that's 2,300 foot, and then another 400 feet up to the spire."
Time's half-mile high photography project uses a software program called Gigapan, which makes extremely high resolution photographic images. On a computer screen, a user can zoom in and out of images and see the city 360 degrees from atop the Freedom Tower.
"In the finished product you can be on top of the spire and you can pan down and pick out a building or pick out an intersection and zoom right down, you can see people," Weber said. "The challenge to journalism and to photojournalism is access. There's a lot of amazing stuff going on but unless you can access it, it's not there. And increasingly, since 9/11, they've closed all these buildings."
Time's description of the project gives a nod to Weber's shop, although the magazine identified the location as Asheville.
"Beginning with crude bar-napkin sketches and eventually moving to mechanical engineers working in AutoCAD and then to welders in Asheville, N.C., an eight-month process of design and construction resulted in a 13-ft.-long aluminum jib calibrated to adhere to the base of the beacon at the top of the tower's 408-ft. spire," Time said. "To that rotating arm was attached a Canon 5D Mark II with a 100-mm lens. Over a five-hour span of orbital shooting on Sept. 28, 2013, the camera produced 567 pictures that were then stitched together digitally into a single massive—and zoomable—image of everything the eye can see in all directions. This is how that amazing image came to be."
The day Weber brought the boom, one of the ironworkers brought his homing pigeons to the top of the tower.
"He's handing out all these birds and at the appropriate time we all let 'em go," he said. Where did they go? "They're going to go back home. The guy lived in New Jersey. He says by the time I get home the pigeons will be home."
Weber flew to New York and was on hand for Time's announcement of the GigaPan photo project on Thursday.