Crane inspections reveal problems at 3 Downtown sites

By Julie Shapiro

Tourists aren’t the only ones in Lower Manhattan tilting their heads back and looking skyward. In the aftermath of the tower crane collapse on E. 51st St. which killed seven people, cranes citywide are receiving renewed scrutiny, not just from the city but also from residents.

“One can’t help but think about what just happened,” said Esther Regelson, who lives at 109 Washington St.

Beside her building, the W New York-Downtown, a 57-story hotel and condo tower, is rising at 123 Washington St. Last week, the Department of Buildings stopped work on the project and issued a violation to subcontractor Century Maxim Construction Corporation for a pin missing from the tower crane’s base.

“I do look up and worry,” Regelson said. “Who’s overseeing this? If that crane fell, it would fall on our building.”

The missing cotter pin, a steel peg that is inserted into a hole in the crane’s I-beam, serves to stop larger pins from rolling out, said Carly Sullivan, D.O.B. spokesperson. The Buildings Department inspector stayed on site until the pin was replaced.

After the E. 51st St. accident, Patricia Lancaster, D.O.B. commissioner, ordered an inspection of the city’s 30 tower cranes. The inspections have stopped work at three sites around the city so far, all in Lower Manhattan, according to news reports.

In addition to halting construction at the W, the inspections also spelled trouble for the beleaguered Trump Soho condo-hotel tower, which continues to attract violations after a worker died there earlier this year. The D.O.B. issued a stop-work order on Trump’s Spring St. project after finding that the slab attaching the crane to the building had cracks in it, according to news reports. Also, the crane’s beacon light was broken.

A third Lower Manhattan tower crane also received a violation, though it was less serious. The construction site for the new Goldman Sachs Headquarters, at 200 Murray St., has three cranes. The D.O.B. inspector found that the equipment user for one of the cranes did not match the name on the permit and issued a violation to subcontractor Tower Installations L.L.C., Sullivan said.

Pat Moore, a resident of 125 Cedar St., said she couldn’t help but be worried about all the construction Downtown, even before the crane accident and subsequent violations.

“We’re surrounded by danger or potential danger every place we turn,” said Moore, who lives next to the former Deutsche Bank building — which has a large crane, has had numerous safety violations and was the site of a fatal fire last year. “It’s very stressful living in that environment.”

Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, thinks the government needs to better regulate construction sites.

“What we’re witnessing is the failure of both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Buildings to keep up with the explosive boom in construction, which has engulfed the city,” Shufro said.

Shufro pointed to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s response to a series of fatal scaffolding accidents as a model for dealing with construction. When Bloomberg created more stringent regulations and increased fines for unsafe conditions, the number of accidents fell.

“A similar sort of thing has to happen with construction,” Shufro said.

On Tuesday, Lancaster announced changes to inspection protocol for tower cranes, while the D.O.B. investigates the cause of the E. 51st St. accident. Now, inspectors must be on site whenever a tower crane is raised or lowered.

“Tower cranes are highly engineered structures that present unique challenges both to the operator and workers using them,” Lancaster said in a statement. “Any crane operating in an unsafe manner will be shut down immediately.”

The E. 51st St. accident occurred while workers were “jumping” the tower crane, the procedure Lancaster targets in her plan. The project engineer has to provide written protocol for jumping the crane, and beforehand, the general contractor has to hold a safety meeting with the crane operator and jumping crew, which a D.O.B. inspector must attend.

The extra inspections could slow construction projects, said Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers Association, which represents 1,500 construction contractors in the city. Coletti’s contractors are responsible for at least 75 percent of the city’s crane work.

His contractors already hold pre-jump safety meetings, but these meetings will now include the D.O.B.

“Our intention is to fully comply,” Coletti said in a telephone interview. But he is concerned that the extra inspections could slow the city’s economic development. At a meeting on Wednesday, the Buildings Department reassured Coletti that they will assign extra inspectors to cranes and may even hire outside firms to help.

When Shufro heard of Coletti’s concern about slowing construction work, he asked, “Why is that bad? We believe construction work should proceed as fast as possible, but not at the expense of workers’ lives. If you have to slow down so health and safety are protected, so be it.”

Coletti has warned his contractors that the D.O.B. will shut down sites for any violation, no matter how small. He wouldn’t comment on the three recent violations, but said he is working with the Buildings Department to define which violations merit stop-work orders.

The Buildings Department’s new rules do not apply to the Port Authority, which is exempt from agency inspections and construction codes, but the Port is adding its own safety measures for the World Trade Center site. Two tower cranes are currently on site and 17 will ultimately work there, along with other types of cranes, said Steve Coleman, Port Authority spokesperson.

To make the high-rise construction safer, the Port will have F.D.N.Y. inspectors visit the site every 15 days and will open the site to Buildings Department inspectors as often as they are able to come.

“We will make the site available to them,” Coleman said. He added that the Port will allow the city Buildings Department to treat the site as if it were private construction, issuing violations and even stop-work orders if the conditions merit them.

The Buildings Department did not comment on the arrangement.

Earlier this month, Borough President Scott Stringer announced the creation of the Manhattan Construction Watch Group, headed by Catherine McVay Hughes, vice chairperson of Community Board 1. The group, which has representatives from throughout the borough, will have its first meeting next week. Crane violations of the type occurring in Lower Manhattan are exactly the kind of thing the group will address, Hughes said.

“In light of what happened with the crane incident, this is more relevant than ever,” she added.

The Department of Buildings is expects to finish inspecting the city’s 30 tower cranes by April 15. Then the department will inspect the rest of the city’s approximately 220 cranes, which will take until the end of May. The City Council will hold a hearing on construction safety April 29.

Meanwhile, residents are nervously watching their towering neighbors.

“You think about these things,” said Regelson, of 109 Washington St. “One gets paranoid after the issues in the past.”