"She's a badass welder"

For Misty Henry, going to work means crawling into tunnels, avoiding exploding hydrogen pockets and proving that underwater construction is women's work, too.


Jenn Shreve
June 14, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Looking at Misty Henry, it's hard to imagine that she spends her days on the bottom of the San Francisco Bay, plugging leaks in dams and underneath ships, drilling to find cracks in the concrete supports of bridges and crawling into tunnels beneath power plants to blast out gunk. But as an employee of the PanMarine Underwater Construction Company, operating heavy machinery underwater and in claustrophobic conditions is all in a day's work for the cherubic blonde. I sat down with Henry at her cozy apartment in Alameda, Calif., which she shares with two cats, to talk about the demands of a career in underwater welding and being a woman in a male dominated field.

How did you become an underwater welder?

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I was starting my senior year at Cal State L.A., in the journalism department, when the department was cut. Two friends of mine were going to the College of Oceaneering in Wilmington, Calif. They were having fun while I was going through hell. They graduated and got jobs right away. I was, like, what the hell am I doing here? One of them mentioned that he thought I'd do pretty well as a welder. The next thing I know I was sitting at dinner with my mom. I said "mom, I'm dropping out of college to go to the College of Oceaneering." She was pissed at first, but it worked out great.

Did you already know how to dive?

I knew nothing about it. All I knew is that I didn't mind working hard, and I liked doing exciting, challenging things. They teach you diving and welding, and other skills, too. I met people there who changed my life. Now that I'm out in the field, I know made the right decision. I have the best job. Even on the bad days, I'd rather be doing this than working for some management company.

What's a bad day at work?

A bad day is when it's pouring down rain. You've been standing outside for 12 hours and a drill rig is pulling mud out and dripping it all over your head. They want you to make three more welds -- not little welds; this is 28-inch diameter pipe. That's a bad day, because it's too damn long and too damn cold. While you're there, you're cursing at everybody. But on the way home, you're like, damn that was fun.

Is your job dangerous?

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It's as dangerous as you allow it to be. Everybody asks me that. My standard answer is, if you understand the technology and trust the people around you, it's still dangerous, but not as dangerous as everybody thinks. The key is understanding the technology yourself. Don't trust anybody to understand it. There's a lot of people that just bullshit their way through work. You've got to trust people that are working with you. But don't count on them.

Have you ever had a bad experience with people you work with?

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I caught a guy peeing on my truck because he was mad. I was fresh out of school. My boss was told me, "These guys out here, a lot of them don't know what the hell they're talking about. But this guy, D., look and see what he does." I was eager. I just wanted to work. So we worked together. I went to baseball games with the guy. I thought he was nice. Then we got this job that required a certified underwater welder. I was the only person in our shop who was certified -- and I was right out of school. Needless to say, I stepped on some toes. No one really cared, but he was pissed. Some time later, he and I went out on a job, and the first day I didn't dive. The second day, I didn't dive. When I told him I was supposed to dive, he said, "The boss isn't here." After the last day we were on the boat, I caught him peeing on my truck.

After I told my boss what happened, he was worried I would sue. I wasn't going to sue. I'm not going to blackball myself in such a small community. But I wasn't going to not say anything.

Are you usually the only woman on these projects?

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I've never been on a dive job with another woman. Even when I was at a job that lasted a year and a month. I saw some girl laborers that were up there. I don't know what the hell they were doing -- carrying wood around. I never saw anybody really working. I don't mean to be rude, but that's it pretty much.

Do you think you're treated differently by your co-workers because you're
a woman?

Every experience I've had since that one has been the best. The company
I'm with now is owned by a woman, and the guy I work for now has a really
tight grip on his people.

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The biggest problem that I have now -- and it's not even a problem, it just
pisses me off -- has to do with being a girl and being short and looking
fairly young. Everybody thinks that I'm in between semesters at junior
college and haven't decided what to do. So in the meantime, I'm going to
work at a construction company. People will ask me, "You want to learn how
to weld?" I want to say, man, you don't even know. But I never say anything.
It's not even harassment. They don't know. Most of the time, I'll just walk
away. If there are people around who know me, they'll go, "You shouldn't
have said that, man. She's a badass welder."

When we work on tunnels and stuff, and we go out of town, I'm a foreman.
That's kind of hard, being a short little woman foreman to a bunch of guys
you don't know. I don't want to be sexist and say they're not used to me, but
I think that
has something to do with it. They don't like it. What I do is I go in there
and work my ass off. I lead by example.

Have you ever been frightened?

I was under this huge ship, The Cape Fear. It's, like, 807 feet long.
You inflate your suit and crawl like a spider under there, dragging this
umbilical cord with you. They're set up so you can find your way to exact
spots by following the frames and following the welds. I didn't know that.
It's vast. You're using a light, so you can see a little bit, but not much. I
got under and -- this is my embarrassing dive experience -- I wanted to puke. I was lost. I was dizzy. I was wearing a band mask, which allows
water in your ears but not around your face. The water was cold. I think I got a little vertigo from one ear being clogged and the other not,
which will fuck you up. Where I had to go was probably 200 feet away from
where the dive station was. The next thing you know, I had 400 feet of
umbilical out. In the middle it all looks the same. So they pull me out. I
go into the bathroom. I puke. I get back in the water. I get lost again.
I'm like, pull me out right now.

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I worked around the ship for a couple days. Then I saw the pictures of the
ship in dry dock. I was able to use those as reference points. When I got
back underwater again, it was OK. Just being around the ship, I figured it
out. I thought I was going to be a badass.

What are some other jobs you've done?

Lately, I've been doing a lot
of tunnel work. An East Coast energy company has been buying up power
plants from PG&E. They need the discharge and the intake tunnels from these
plants to be repaired and cleaned.

You go into a tunnel?

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Yes, you crawl down into this thing. You do your work. You breathe. The
tunnels are usually full of water. If we wait more than four or five days
to go in, the H2S levels start to build up, because of all the
decaying
marine growth and things like that. H2S will kill you at a certain level.
But we use "sniffers" that tell you how much of what is in the air. Once
we check it from end to end, everybody goes in and goes to work. They have
alarms that go off long before anybody's going to get hurt.

In a tunnel you use tools to clean out the marine life. There's a picture
of me in my suit. I was using a fire hose and a suicide nozzle. I had guys
in front of me. I was behind them with the suicide nozzle in the tunnel
just blowing it down into this area called the vault. From the vault, we
were pouring it out with pumps, pushing it out. Tunnel work is the hardest
work I've done.

What else do you do underwater?

There are all these little dopplers out in the bay. They measure the flow
and direction of currents. They're long. They have big alien heads. Every
once in a while, they get lost. So they send us down with these pinners to
find them. You can't see anything. It's total darkness. This pinner is like
a gun with fluorescent numbers on the back. It doesn't tell you what
direction to go in, but it tells you in meters approximately how close you
are.

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Do you ever blow things up underwater?

When you cut metal underwater, you're burning at like 10,000 degrees, which
spilts water molecules. When you split a water molecule, you create
hydrogen pockets all over the place. One of the joys of burning is
explosions. With experience, you learn the points where you have to pull out.
When you're just learning -- right when you say in your mind, oh shit, I've
got to pull out -- it's like poof. I've seen some explosions where
they blew the end of a rod apart. During school, when I was learning it, I
got blown off the back of a stage once. [A stage is a platform used to
lower people into the water.] It knocked the crap out of me.

Do you see yourself doing this for a long time?

I don't know how long I could take this. I'm 30. Obviously, I won't be
doing this when I'm 50. But I have a lot of good years left. When my body
starts to break down, I want to stay in the industry, but I want to move
into another area of it. Right now, though, I'm very happy. I'm growing.
I'm learning. I'm doing well.

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Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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