AUGUSTA — The white steel beam bearing the colorful signatures of hundreds of employees, visitors, donors, patients and construction workers rose slowly.

A MaineGeneral Medical Center banner unfurled beneath it, prompting applause and a brief “whoop whoop” from a fire engine siren.

Then the crane operator neatly placed the beam, which sported an American flag and a small fir tree between two rust-colored beams. Holes were lined up and John Milbrand, construction manager for MaineGeneral Health, wearing white safety gloves, inserted the first two bolts.

The topping-out ceremony — signaling that the building skeleton for the new multimillion-dollar hospital in north Augusta had reached its height — took place under a sunny sky and in front of more than 600 hard-hatted people Monday morning at the site, which is off Old Belgrade Road and next to the Alfond Center for Cancer Care.

“The ride was great,” Milbrand said, shortly after leaving the bucket of the boom truck. He said he installed one bolt at each end. “The contractors did the hard work of getting them lined up.”

Site work began last August, and the regional hospital now is slated to open Dec. 7, 2013, a full six months ahead of the original timetable.

The ceremony on Monday was watched by a sea of people in fluorescent orange and green T-shirts, colorful hard hats and loose-fitting safety vests. Steel-toed boots helped distinguish the workers from the visitors, and many of both had cameras and cellphones in hand to record the historic moment.

A barbecue lunch then was held for the 570 project workers, who ate at tables and on folding chairs inside the 640,000-square-foot building still under construction.

“It’s a heartfelt thank you,” said Scott Bullock, chief executive officer of MaineGeneral Health, the hospital’s parent organization. He reminded people it had been exactly 10 months since the formal groundbreaking ceremony took place — when he had called out, “Drive that pile.”

Monday’s direction was a little different: “Drive that beam.”

He described the new hospital as “a showplace, but more importantly, a healing place for patients and their families.”

‘Coming home’

MaineGeneral Medical Center’s president and chief executive officer, Chuck Hays, told the crowd Monday that the adoption of the integrated project delivery model — in which the hospital, the architects, and the contractors work together on the construction and design — made that achievement possible.

“We focused on companies that are progressive thinkers, work well as a team, and whose philosophy and culture mesh well,” he said.

Calling it “the largest health-care construction project in the state’s history,” Hays said the aim was to employ Maine workers. On Monday, John Scott, senior vice president of H.P. Cummings, said 89 percent of the workers were from Maine and 96 percent from New England.

Scott estimated the building is now 40 percent complete.

When open, the 192-bed hospital will replace the inpatient functions at MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Thayer campus in Waterville as well as the hospital on East Chestnut Street in Augusta.

The cost of entire hospital project, including financing, is estimated at $412 million, including $10 million in improvements for the Thayer campus.

Hays talked about the messages on the final beam, including one from the people who formerly farmed the land flanked by Interstate 95 and Old Belgrade Road. They wrote “Coming home. The Dostie Family.”

Aaron Ouellette, of Litchfield, an electrical worker installing telecommunications lines, signed his son’s name, Kolton, in honor of the boy’s first birthday Monday.

“Pete Cote” and “Jimmy G” were inked on the underside of the beam; there were hearts, “in memory” notations, and references to “4E,” an area of the hospital.

New stage begins

The patient towers and center section of the new hospital remained open to the air while parts of the education center and entrance were closed in with glass.

Site work and some concrete work are still under way but slowing down, and more workers in the finish trades are coming in.

Some of the tradespeople will be moving on soon to other projects, including the structural steel workers.

The large, red crane that has been walked slowly to different sides of the hospital to lift beams probably will be gone by next week.

Jimmy George, of Weare, N.H., of American Steel, said the 300-ton-capacity, red Manitowoc 2250 crane would be disassembled and removed by 20 flatbeds.

George estimated 80,000 work hours went into the new hospital, and almost 4,000 tons of steel.

“It’s been good working here in Maine,” he said.

Steve Lawrence, of Madison, senior supervisor for Buckner Steel, which is doing the project in partnership with American Steel, went further. “It’s really good being home,” he said.

Howard Towle supervises a taping crew for Porter Drywall, which partnered with several other drywall companies on the massive job. He likes working close to his Sidney home.

“The truck doesn’t even have time to warm up,” he said.

Shane Watson, of East Parsonsfield, said his firm, Johnson and Jordan Inc., Mechanical Contractors, has 75 people on site doing plumbing and other systems. It’s the largest job his firm has done.

“The size is just incredible,” he said, “and the pace of the job is moving faster than anything I’ve ever been privy to. It’s awesome. It’s great.”

Chuck Fraser, of Newburgh, said his firm, E. S. Boulos Co., has 60 electricians and 15 teledata personnel on site. He said they’ve been busy installing switches, among other jobs, so work lights can be turned off at night and lower the electrical bill.

“It’s the cleanest job I’ve ever been on,” he said. “They’re paying laborers to clean it up. It’s good for morale.”