Saturday, May 3, 2008

City's Trust in Cranes Dwindles in Wake of Recent Accidents

By Kathryn Carlson

New York, April 25 -- Sissy Siganoff panicked when she heard of the March 15 crane collapse that killed seven people and injured 24 others on Manhattan's Upper East Side. She was taken back to nearly two years ago when a 14-foot piece of crane pancaked the taxi she was riding in near Union Square.

Immediately after the recent crane collapse, a rattled Siganoff phoned her attorney, Howard Raphaelson. "She called feeling great anxiety and distress that the city could allow this type of disaster to occur again," said Raphaelson. "New York City is allowing construction disasters to occur one after another. Unfortunately for the families of the deceased in this recent disaster, Ms. Siganoff's warning was not enough. As is usually the case, the only proof that the City will react to is death."

According to Raphaelson, Siganoff has developed a severe fear of construction sites and overhead sidewalk bridges, forcing her to spend much of her time confined to her home. The crushed taxi now sits in the driver's brother's garage, reminding cabbie Chrislorm Paul of his brush with an 8,000-pound metal chunk that plunged within inches of his seat.

While Paul has gone back to driving taxis, the pair are in the midst of suing three of the companies involved in the maintenance and operation of the crane -- all of which are claiming they are "not at fault" because they were in compliance with the City's Building Code regulations.

Within days of the latest accident, city officials released a report describing the collapse stating that the crane was in the process of being "jumped" -- a technique where sections are added to the structure to raise it -- when a piece of a steel collar fell off the bracing and severed a lower portion of the crane, knocking out a set of braces and toppling the entire crane from the 18th floor of an East Manhattan residential building.

As reported by The New York Times, the number of crane-related accidents across the five boroughs increased from 2006 to 2007. There were eight accidents involving fatalities or injuries in 2007, up from five in 2006, and 21 incidents not involving fatalities or injuries, up from 14. The number of safety violations at high-rise construction sites has nearly doubled over the same period, according to a City report quoted in the New York Sun.

New York indeed stands tall, stretching lengthwise with its high-rise residential buildings and skyscrapers, peppered with the towering steel cranes that allow for upward development. But after the March 15 accident, cranes were no longer simply regarded as unaffecting machines -- and Siganoff was suddenly not so alone in her fears.

The crane collapse breached the public's trust in the stability of the more than 250 cranes that graze the city's skyline cranes. This accident and others -- including a December 2007 incident when seven tons of steel fell onto Murray Street and injured an architect, and a January 2008 accident when a construction worker fell 42 stories from a hotel on Spring Street -- has especially soured the relationship between cranes, and construction workers. Just as it's no longer unusual to see passersby avoiding the stigmatized structures, some construction workers are more wary about their close existence with cranes.

A crane operator of 22 years, who requested to be identified as J.M., was present at the site when Siganoff's taxi was flattened. "After seeing that accident, it was definitely a bit shaky for me," J.M. said, as he looked up at the crane on the site where he's now working at the corner of Bowery and Great Jones. "You just have to push past it. But after accidents like that and the recent one, there are guys now who don't want to go up in the towers anymore. It's more common than you'd think."

Another worker said he's also worried. "Right now I don't trust that everything's okay all the time," said Fernando Arajjo, a roofer with Roofers' Union Local No. 8. "You have to look out for your own safety, now I look for loose posts and screws. Because of the accidents, I feel like I have to be more careful."

Dr. Alberto Goldwaser, a psychiatrist with Forensic Psychiatric Associates, said this sort of reaction is not uncommon. "Even if a person was not there to experience a particular incident, a person is left with their own mind and imagination," Goldwaser said.

J.M. said trust among crewmembers is important in his line of work, adding that there's a small circle of crane operators and that it's an industry where everyone knows everyone. "A lot of guys won't work with the person who was in charge of the site for the recent accident," he said. "I'll only work with certain people. We're the ones up there. Everyday, people go up and down. These guys have families."

While it's largely the lead engineer's responsibility to make sure the crane is secure, J.M. said the crew looks out for each other and works together to ensure that the site is safe.

Following the March 15 collapse, the Buildings Department ordered some changes to the way the City inspects and regulates tower cranes. A City inspector must now be present every time a crane is erected, jumped, or dismantled, a project engineer must submit a written protocol for each jump, and nylon slings -- the tearing of which was thought to be involved in the most recent accident -- can only be used if they are specifically recommended by the crane manufacturer.

Some within the industry are already questioning the effectiveness of the new regulations. "When it comes to the new regulations, they're just assigning people to do things that they don't really have a clue about," J.M said. "What's more is that the people who are going to be on the hurting end of the new rules are the contractors, because they have a schedule to keep. We just did a jump on 57th Street and the City was late so there were 20 guys standing around waiting."

City Councilmember Tony Avella says these regulations are too little, too late, and points to the fact that no sweeping changes were made to crane-related building codes in the wake of the rise in accidents. "It's like the agency not only doesn't keep up with new industry practices, it's also doing no enforcement of the regulations that are already on the books," said Avella, who is a member of the Buildings and Housing Committee.

Avella said he became so frustrated with Building Commissioner Patricia Lancaster's inaction that he began calling for her resignation immediately after the most recent collapse. "This is not personal, but Commissioner Lancaster doesn't have the leadership capabilities or the political willpower to make changes. Enough is enough. She has to go."

After admitting to a City Council hearing that her department had incorrectly issued permits at the March 15 collapse site, Lancaster -- who held the position since 2002 -- stepped down April 23. While neither Mayor Michael Bloomberg nor Lancaster offered details of the resignation, both expressed confidence in Lancaster's deputy, Robert LiMandri, who will serve as interim commissioner.

The City Council's Buildings and Housing Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on April 29 to look further into the cause of the recent collapse and discuss the future of the city's cranes.

Kathryn Blaze Carlson is a graduate journalism student in the Reporting the Nation program at New York University. Prior to moving to the Big Apple, Kathryn worked as a correspondence writer in Canada's Prime Minister's Office. She earned an undergraduate degree in journalism with a minor in political science at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada, in conjunction with City University in London, England. Kathryn, a National Press Foundation Fellow, grew up on the Canadian prairies and has worked for publications ranging from a national magazine to a community newspaper to an online news outlet.

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