Sunday, June 1, 2008

Criminal Inquiry Is Opened in New York Crane Collapse


The Manhattan district attorney’s office has opened a criminal investigation into a fatal crane accident on the East Side, focusing on whether a part of the crane had been seriously damaged last year and then inappropriately put back into service, an official involved in the investigation said on Saturday.

The piece in question is a rotating apparatus, or turntable, that connects the operator’s cab and the boom to the crane tower. The official said investigators believed but were not certain that the turntable involved in Friday’s accident, on East 91st Street, was damaged during construction on West 46th Street last year.

In both jobs, the cranes were owned by the New York Crane and Equipment Corporation. The owner of the company, James F. Lomma, did not return calls.

If the turntable in Friday’s accident is the same as the one damaged last year, the district attorney’s office will try to answer several questions, people involved in the investigation said. Those questions include: Did the Department of Buildings order New York Crane to dispose of the cracked turntable? If New York Crane was authorized to repair the turntable, was the work done correctly? And was the Buildings Department required to sign off on those repairs?

The division of the district attorney’s office handling the investigation, the Rackets Bureau, looks into all fatal construction accidents in the borough. But in some of those cases it quickly determines that there is no criminal liability.

“I wouldn’t say that here,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was in its earliest stages. “I think it’s an open question. If in fact that turntable was taken out of service and someone put it back in service improperly, that could lead to criminal liability.”

Barbara Thompson, the spokeswoman for the district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, confirmed that an investigation had begun but declined to discuss any details.

In May 2007, a worker discovered a crack in a metal plate that was part of the turntable of a crane at the construction site of the Platinum condominium, at Eighth Avenue and 46th Street, construction executives involved in the project said. The city halted work, and the turntable was replaced.

If the same turntable was in use on Friday, investigators will try to determine whether the repairs and reassembly were adequate.

Robert D. LiMandri, the acting buildings commissioner, said during a news conference on Saturday that it had not been determined whether it was the same turntable at the two construction sites. He said the turntable would be a focus of the investigation.

“A deep mechanical failure within the crane is something we need to get to the bottom of,” he said.

Crane Collapse Interactive Graphic click here.

Asked whether the city had directed New York Crane to discard the turntable after the damage was detected last year, Mr. LiMandri said only that he knew there had been “discussion about a crane, a Kodiak crane” that had a problem.

The failure on East 91st Street appeared to be very different from the problem discovered last year on West 46th Street, however. The 91st Street accident did not involve a crack in the turntable, but instead appeared to have occurred when a weld joining two parts of the turntable broke, according to people familiar with the investigation. A person who examined the crane after Friday’s accident said that the faulty weld could have been made when the turntable was reassembled after being repaired.

After the turntable broke, the top part of the crane, including the cab, boom and counterweight, separated from the crane’s steel tower and smashed into an apartment building across the street before falling to the ground. Two workers were killed and one was injured.

The crane, a model known as a Kodiak, was manufactured in 1984.

Mr. LiMandri issued stop-work orders for Kodiak cranes that are now in use at four other sites in Manhattan until new inspections, additional testing and a review of maintenance records are completed. He also directed that no cranes be erected, dismantled or increased in height over the weekend.

At the site of the accident on East 91st Street, workers on Saturday scaled more than a dozen stories up the damaged remnants of the crane tower. Two other cranes were brought in to help dismantle it, a job that was completed in the afternoon. The tower had concerned neighbors for weeks, amid fresh memories of a crane collapse on East 51st Street that killed seven people in March.

Passers-by took little solace in seeing one crane removed at a time when a construction boom has made parts of the city’s skyline seem like a forest of cranes.

“It’s crazy, it’s unbelievable,” said Maria Garcia, 28, a waitress from the Bronx who was visiting family in the neighborhood. “Anything can happen. It scares me because my husband is a construction worker.”

City Councilwoman Jessica S. Lappin, whose district includes the Yorkville site of the collapse, said her office had been overwhelmed since Friday morning with calls and e-mail messages from worried constituents.

“People are scared and angry, and I don’t blame them,” she said at the scene on Saturday. “Everybody needs to come together and figure out in the short term what solutions can be put into place to make these sites safer right away.”

The Buildings Department held an emergency closed-door meeting on Saturday with 79 representatives from the construction industry to solicit opinions on how to make work sites safer amid the city’s real estate boom.

After the meeting, Mr. LiMandri said he was “troubled and saddened” by the collapse and felt optimistic that the discussion would yield meaningful change.

He said construction will not cease, “but it cannot come at the expense of workers or other New Yorkers.”

One of those attending the meeting, Louis J. Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, which represents contractors and construction industry unions, said there were smaller discussion groups that stayed focused on tower crane safety.

“It’s hard to describe the emotion in the room,” Mr. Coletti said. “But it’s clear that the city and the industry see this as a shared tragedy and want to do everything they can to regain the confidence of the people of New York City and assure them that they are safe.”

The residents of the building at 354 East 91st Street, which was hit by the falling crane and evacuated, spent Saturday searching for information about when they might be able to return to their apartments. The police escorted residents into their homes to help them retrieve belongings. Some said they were staying with friends, while others had sought shelter at the 92nd Street Y or at a Marriott hotel a block from their building.

“The most frustrating thing is finding out fresh information,” said Marina Harss, 35, a freelance translator and dance writer who lived in the damaged building. “We’re still hoping, possibly unrealistically, that we’ll be able to get in by Monday.”

Video: Crane Kills 2 Workers


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