sewerchamps.jpgWe were glad to see The New York Times giving front-page treatment (of the Metro section anyway) to a group of city employees who probably don't get as much recognition as they deserve. The Times' Ellen Barry was on hand for the 20th Annual Operators' Challenge yesterday, where six teams competed to determine who was the best of the best among city sewer workers.

The OC is run by the Dept. of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Wastewater Treatment, which is responsible for the pumping and treatment an average of 1.2 billion gallons of raw sewage every day. Everyone who has worked in the sewers has a story to tell, and some shared them with Barry:

Joe Fahey remembered looking down and realizing that the shapes sliding past him were eels.

Yogi Kemraj recalled a four-hour predawn battle with a tree branch jammed in a storm drain on 59th Street, as water barreled past him up to his neck.

Roger Alava grimaced, thinking of the time he had to rinse his mouth out with rubbing alcohol; like all the sewage workers, he has learned to hold his lips permanently pursed, but a tiny splash of sewage can still go astray.

But the Operator's Challenge is a time for these men to let their talents shine in full view of friends and family, who most likely don't usually want to hear about what goes on at work. Six teams of three men were in competition for the top two spots: The Bowery Boys, The Bowery Bay Bowl Busters, The Tallman Island Collections Cobras, The Tallman Island Collections Ninja Turtles (a "turtle" is sewer worker slang), The Jamaica Jesters, and The Tallman Island Turd Surfers.

There are five events in the Operators' Challenge, including rescuing a dummy from a confined space while observing safety protocols, testing for oxygen demand in water, which is an indicator of pollution, operating an emergency pump, replacing a broken pipe with a minimum of waste spillage, and a written exam.

There is one special event remaining in the Operators' Challenge, that will be contested next week by yesterday's top three finishers, who are The Bowery Bay Bowl Busters, The Jamaica Jesters, and The Wards Island Collections Ninja Turtles. The top two finishers will go on to represent NYC in a statewide competition and the two best state teams will represent New York in a national competition in October. Eye of the Tiger, gentlemen.

A full list of team members and the winners in each event is available here.