IMAGE: COLLAPSED CRANE
MSNBC
Friday's crane accident was the second deadly one in 2 1/2 months in New York City, which is in the midst a building boom.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/30/2008 6:20:55 PM ET 2008-05-30T22:20:55

A construction crane snapped and smashed into an apartment building with a thunderous roar Friday, killing two workers in the city's second such tragedy in 2 1/2 months and renewing fears about the safety of hundreds of cranes towering over the New York skyline.

The collapse happened despite stepped-up inspections and a shake-up in the city Buildings Department after the earlier accident, which killed seven people in March.

The 200-foot crane fell apart on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where contractors were building a 32-story luxury condo complex, about 12 stories high.

Scott Bair, a foreman who arrived at the site seconds after the crane fell, said several co-workers told him the crane had just dropped off a load of materials on the top of the building and was turning to pick up a load from the street when "the turntable popped off — even though there are 16 bolts that hold it down. It could be an issue with the bolts."

The turntable is a piece of equipment that helps the crane rotate.

Acting Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri said that investigators "will be focusing on a particular weld that failed" on the crane, and noted that the crane's model, the Kodiak, is out of production and one of only four in the city.

LiMandri also suspended several crane operations in the city and called an emergency meeting of experts Saturday to address crane safety.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the accident "unacceptable and intolerable" but added: "Having said that, we do not know at the moment what happened or why."

People shouldn't live in fear
With the city going through a supercharged building boom and an estimated 250 cranes in operation as of mid-March, New York has seen a series of deadly construction accidents. Nine people have died in crane accidents so far this year. None died in crane accidents last year; two were killed in 2006.

"Construction of buildings is out of control in this city," City Councilman Tony Avella said. "How many people have to die before the mayor decides enough is enough?"

City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, who represented the neighborhood affected by the March collapse, said: "People shouldn't live in fear walking near a construction site — and certainly shouldn't feel fear sitting in their living rooms."

Building Department records said officials halted work at the Upper East Side site after the crane failed a "load test" on April 22. However, the crane passed a second test the next day, and no violation was issued.

Department records also indicate several neighborhood complaints about cranes at the site in recent weeks. At least two callers had expressed concerns about parts of the crane extending past safety barriers. One complained that workers were hoisting heavy metal and concrete over the heads of pedestrians.

Inspectors found most of the concerns were unwarranted, and Building Department officials said the crane had been inspected frequently.

'Shook up and crying'
Two people died in the accident and another was injured. All were construction workers, Bloomberg said at a news conference. In addition, one pedestrian was treated for minor injuries. The first fatality was a worker in the cab of the crane, and a second worker later died at hospital.

The two men who died were identified as Ramadan Kurtas, 27, and the crane’s operator, Donald Leo, 30, said Ellen Borakove, spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner’s office.

Earlier, a body was brought out of the rubble at East 91st Street and First Avenue, placed on a gurney and covered in a white sheet. A construction worker knelt over the stretcher, gently stroking the sheet.

A third worker was seriously injured, and one pedestrian was treated for minor injuries.

Bair said one of the workers on his 40-man crew, Simeon Alexis, was taken to the hospital with his “chest slashed open.”

“Everyone was shook up and crying. These are some hardened men, but they were crying,” he said.

Worker reportedly warned boss
Gloria Betancourt, who works across the street, said she had been watching the crane every day because she had been told there could be a problem.

"One of the construction guys that's a frequent customer, he had told me that he was telling his boss, 'You've got to tighten up that screw on the crane because it looks kind of loose,'" Betancourt told NBC News. "And he was like, 'Oh, that's BS. Don’t worry about it.' And look what happened."

Ben, a 29-year-old U.N. employee who lives in a building damaged by the crane, described being awakened by the collapse.

"I was actually sleeping," he told msnbc.com. "I heard a loud crash. The first thought in my head was 'this crane is collapsing.'"

Ben, who asked that his last name not be used, said he made sure he was OK, found his two cats and walked out the door with them in a cat carrier. He said what appears to be a piece of the crane is sitting in his living room floor.

"I don't believe I have a balcony anymore," he said. Ben said he and his friends had watched the crane being assembled and actually considered the prospect of it collapsing.

"The sound was like a thunder clap. Then, an earthquake," added Peter Barba, who lives on the seventh floor of the damaged building across the street from where workers were erecting a luxury apartment tower.

Cries of ‘No’
Crystal Bisbano, who lives on the sixth floor of the building that was damaged, said the crane destroyed her apartment.

"I have a wall of sliding glass doors, the whole thing was shattered, " she said. "I could hear men outside screaming cries of 'No'."

A construction worker, Simeon Alexis, was taken to a hospital with his "chest slashed open," foreman Scott Bair said.

His eyes filled with tears, Bair said his own life was saved because he left to get a sandwich a block away just before the collapse. "I thought, I'm hungry, and I want to go get something to eat — and that saved my life," he said.

He said he ran to the construction site, took a roll call of his 40 workers and discovered Alexis was missing.

"Everyone was shook up and crying," he said. "These are some hardened men, but they were crying."

Barba said it appeared the entire cab came off the crane; its main arm hit the penthouse of his building, then "took out the northeast corner," he said.

Hole in building
Bloomberg said the top part of the crane snapped off and fell against the building on the southwest corner of 91st Street around 8 a.m.. Witnesses described a loud boom, then a cloud of smoke and debris.

Video from the scene showed the upper-floor balconies of the apartment building were severely damaged and a hole extended several stories down the side of the building.

Chaos enveloped the largely residential neighborhood of town houses and apartment high-rises as dozens of emergency vehicles raced to the scene during the morning rush hour.

Robert Lopez, manager of a pharmacy on the ground floor of the building that was hit, said he was 10 feet from the window when he heard "a big boom."

"Everybody was yelling and running and calling 911," he said. When he looked out again, he saw part of the crane had landed just feet from the window where he had been standing.

Brian Nurenberg, 37, was playing indoor tennis two blocks away when he heard the crash.

"It was a couple of loud sort of bangs, high in the air," he said. "It sounded catastrophic, and that's from two blocks away."

Construction boom
The neighborhood, not far from the mayor's official residence, has undergone a construction boom in recent years, with high-rises swiftly replacing older, low-rise brownstones.

Full of bars and casual restaurants, the neighborhood is populated with a mix of retirees, students and young professionals. Until recently, it had been considered one of Manhattan's more affordable neighborhoods.

In a March 15 accident about 2 miles to the south, contractors building a 46-story condominium near the United Nations were trying to lengthen the crane when a steel support broke, killing seven people.

A four-story town house was demolished and several other buildings were damaged.

A city inspector resigned after his arrest on charges of falsifying business records and offering a false instrument for filing.

In April, the city's buildings commissioner resigned, under fire over a rising number of deadly construction accidents that killed more than 26 construction workers in the past year.

Since then, the city has added extra inspections at building sites and required that its staff be on hand whenever the towering cranes were raised higher, a process known as a jump. Those procedures are still being revised.

The Associated Press and msnbc.com's Elizabeth Chuck and Jason White contributed to this report.

Video: Questions after crane collapse

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