San Francisco, California
Mechanical failure apparently sent a 9.5-ton concrete panel hurtling down onto an unoccupied fire station in downtown San Francisco, state inspectors said yesterday.
The accident at 9 p.m. Wednesday injured no one because just three days before, 15 firefighters had moved out of the station at Third and Howard streets so repairs could be done.
The 8-by-10-foot concrete panel fell about 30 stories before it crashed through the fire station’s roof just east of where the crane was being used in the construction of a hotel. The panel fell after the crane operator had lifted it from the ground and was attempting to position it so workers could attach it to the building.
“This very likely occurred because of a mechanical defect in the gear box,” said Dean Fryer, spokesman for the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Fryer noted that Webcor Builders, the hotel’s contractor, had only one serious citation in recent years. Computer records dating back to 1990 show the San Mateo firm received that citation for failure to have proper railings at a 2 Stockton Street construction site in 1995, Fryer added.
Cal-OSHA’s view about the cause of Wednesday’s accident was echoed by Webcor and Morrow Equipment Co., the Salem, Ore. firm representing the crane company.
“From a very preliminary look, it was not any negligence or operator error,” said John Curley, vice president of Webcor, which has 13 other projects under way in the Bay Area. “It appears what happened was a malfunction in the crane itself, either in the gear box” or in the spool that holds the crane’s cable.
Webcor is building the 32-story hotel next to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, the project’s developer, bought the site from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency for almost $8 million last year and began construction in July 1997.
Starwood became the world’s largest hotel company earlier this year with its purchase of the Westin chain and ITT Corp., which owns the Sheraton chain and Caesars gambling facilities. “We pride ourselves in the selection of the highest quality contractors and supplies,” said Starwood spokesman John Gallagher. The crane involved in Wednesday’s accident was made by Liebherr Werk, a German firm represented in this country by Morrow Equipment Co., which bills itself as the world’s largest tower crane operator. John Morrow, chairman of Morrow firm, told The Chronicle that two Morrow technicians went to the site yesterday and concluded that a worn or broken part in the gear box apparently caused the accident.
This was the second major accident at the site. On Aug. 26, 1997, a 10-ton column of reinforced steel toppled over inside the building as workers were installing the column. Three workers suffered minor injuries. OSHA issued no citations against Webcor in that incident, Webcor officials said. The 1997 accident did not involve the tower crane that may have malfunctioned Wednesday.
“We have an excellent safety record and we take this very seriously,” said Curley. In 1989, a crane fell over at 600 California Street in downtown San Francisco. Four workers and a bus driver were killed. OSHA concluded that workers engaged in improper procedures when they were increasing the crane’s height. The agency issued safety citations against Erection Co., a Washington firm.
Yesterday, fire officials marveled at their good fortune.
“It was just short of a miracle we weren’t there,” said Lieutenant Ed Campbell, the department’s spokesman.
One firefighter stood outside the site with a big grin on his face.” If I had been working, it would have got me,” he said. “It’s just an eerie feeling.”
Chronicle research librarian Johnny Miller and staff writer Marshall Wilson contributed to this report.
Photograph Comments: A hole in the roof of Fire Station No. 1 showed where a 9.5-ton concrete panel crashed through.
Category: Accident Report