NEW YORK -- Timmy Vassilakis is not just another hard hat.
And in a city where success is so often measured vertically, this project is personal.
Vassilakis was a lowly apprentice for a heating and air-conditioning company on the 106th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, assigned to fetch coffee for his co-workers on an idyllic morning much like Thursday.
He got out.
But when so many others vowed never to return to this chasm in Lower Manhattan, Vassilakis couldn't seem to stay away, installing pipes in what will eventually be the tallest building in the nation -- the Freedom Tower.
"It's taken way too long," said Vassilakis, 31, a construction worker with Jamaica, N.Y.-based Cardoza Plumbing Corp. "I think it should have been rebuilt a long time ago."
Steel work on the city's most talked about skyscraper, which is located northwest of the footprints of the old World Trade Center, currently tops out at the 78th floor, with concrete reaching 70 stories.
When the landmark is complete, which is not expected for another year or two, it will max out at 102 floors, capped off by a 300-foot antenna that will make the Freedom Tower soar to a symbolic 1,776 feet.
"I'd go up there," said Brian Tighe, 47, a sales manager from San Jose, Calif. "It's amazing to see the progress."
Tighe marveled at the gleaming structure with his son, Sean, 15, and daughter, Kiera, 12, from Vesey Street.
"It's kind of a sign of strength to me," Tighe said. "We get knocked down, but you get back up."
But don't call it the Freedom Tower, as a tour guide from the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey reminded several times during a visit to the site Thursday.
The Port Authority, the building's developer and owner of the land at ground zero, is a stickler for 1 World Trade Center.
A 10-minute ascent -- for lack of a better word -- from the street level leads to the building's open-air 70th floor.
There are no elevators, at least not the kind most people are used to.
No, there's what's known as "the hoist," a cage-like lift plastered with bumper stickers from faraway places like Key West, Fla., complete with a boom box playing Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie."
"The key is don't look outside and don't look down," Frank Crecco, 58, a plumber from Long Island, advises before the harrowing ride.
One ride on the local and one ride on the express version of the hoist, which has a weight limit of 7,700 pounds, transports construction workers to vertigo-inducing heights.
Mesh netting and metal cables are the only safety barriers up here, where welders are using a blowtorch to lock a latticework of beams into place. The building's core is a skeleton-like tangle of metal reinforcement bars, or rebar in construction speak.
Veteran skywalkers aren't the least bit fazed by the death-defying height or the gaping hole in the mesh, which affords a jaw-dropping view of the Empire State Building.
"It gets to a point where it doesn't matter," said Mike Kossuth, 50, a steel surveyor.
Kossuth previously worked on the New York Times Building in Midtown and the Goldman Sachs Tower just across the river from ground zero in Jersey City, N.J., or across the "street" as he put it.
Back on terra firma, men in hard hats, their skin ruddy from the sun, matter-of-factly watch the building grow before their very eyes. They collect their paychecks from a foreman. One eats spaghetti out of a Tupperware container.
Crecco puffs on a cigarette, calling the $3.1 billion project a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"There's a lot more pride in it," Crecco said.
In the shadow of the Freedom Tower is the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum, where work on the plaza is progressing at break-neck speed with one month until the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
"I found that the scale is much larger than I envisioned," Mary Fetchet, a New Canaan resident who lost her son, Brad, in the attacks said in a telephone interview.
Fetchet is a founding director of the advocacy group Voices of Sept. 11.
"We really advocated for the place where the towers stood to be memorialized," Fetchet said.
A total of 152 people with Connecticut ties died in the attacks.
Family members of the victims will get priority access to the memorial, which consists of two reflecting pools on the footprints of the old towers, on the anniversary.
Metal plates with the victims' names were recently installed on each side of the two massive reflecting pools, which will be fed with water by a pair of fountains.
Fetchet said just under half of those who lost loved ones at the World Trade Center did not receive any remains.
"It's certainly even that much more significant for them because they don't have a gravesite," Fetchet said.
From a park bench in St. Paul's Chapel cemetery on Trinity Place, which is directly across from the Sept. 11 Memorial and Freedom Tower, Jim and Jane Mulholland witnessed the site's ongoing transformation Thursday. The couple was visiting from Houston.
"I think we have to say to the world, `We operated here before and we operated after,' " Jim Mulholland said.
Staff writer Neil Vigdor can be reached at email@example.com or at 203-625-4436.