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reaching upward

Iron worker Steven Cross uses a hammer to adjust the flanges of an iron column on the 100th story of One World Trade Center in New York, April 30, 2012. The addition of iron columns to the 100th story pushed the height of One World Trade above that of the Empire State Building today.

Steve Cross knew he was making history on Monday afternoon when he wriggled a bolt into place in the steel column that turned One World Trade Center into New York City's tallest skyscraper.

The 36-year-old ironworker from the Kahnawake reserve in Quebec was just metres away from a cluster of reporters perched atop the building to capture the moment when it surpassed the height of the Empire State Building.

Mr. Cross is part of a long tradition of Mohawk skywalkers who have helped construct the buildings that punctuate the Manhattan skyline. His father, grandfather and both of his great-grandfathers all did the same work, and he installed the columns on Monday afternoon alongside his cousin, Adam, who is from the same reserve.

Dubbed Freedom Tower, the building is meant to replace the twin towers that were destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001. After the addition of two steel columns on Monday, the tower's skeleton stands slightly more than 381 metres high – just edging out the Empire State Building.

The columns were added the day before the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, adding further significance for many of those who watched.

"I know a lot of people that have a lot of ties to this building and this site," Mr. Cross said in an interview Monday evening. "Everybody wanted it, and to finally have it done – and then to be a part of it, it's good. Actually it's great."

If the 124-metre-tall needle that will go on its roof is counted, the building will become the tallest structure in the U.S., surpassing even the Willis Tower in Chicago. It's expected to be completed next year.

Groundbreaking on the tower took place in 2006, and construction started about a year and a half ago.

Mohawk labourers have been working on bridges and skyscrapers for more than 100 years, when a number of them were hired to construct a bridge over the St. Lawrence River near their reserve. Their ability to work high above the ground – seemingly with no fear – quickly impressed their employers.

Since then, generation after generation has travelled to New York, where Mohawk men have worked on most of New York's biggest projects, from the Empire State Building to the George Washington Bridge.

Mr. Cross, who has been an ironworker in New York for about a decade, said he doesn't find it particularly nerve-wracking to be working hundreds of metres above the ground, but he never takes his safety for granted.

"I guess it's kind of, I don't know about scary, but it keeps you on your toes. You go to work and every day could be your last, you never know. That's scary just in itself," he said.

He added that he's usually filled with a sense of awe just knowing that he's among the first to be on top of a new building. "I may never have a chance to be there again, but I get to see it from the ground up, which is pretty cool."