A huge crane collapsed at a Chelsea construction site on Friday morning, killing one worker and injuring three others after the crane operator tried to hoist the boom without releasing special restraints intended to prevent an accident during Tropical Storm Floyd, officials said.
The 383-foot red steel crane, which had become a fixture in the bustling neighborhood, buckled under the restraints, tumbled backward and crashed at the corner of 24th Street and the Avenue of the Americas just after 7 A.M., crushing a carpenter who was having breakfast on the sidewalk before heading to work at the site.
The man, Kenneth Preiman, 43, suffered severe head injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene, where the crane knocked over a traffic light and a lamppost and left a hole a foot deep in the sidewalk.
The other three workers were hit by debris and suffered only minor injuries. The crane operator, Paul Hettinger, spent most of yesterday being questioned by the police, as well as investigators from the city’s Buildings Department and the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The fatal accident came 14 months after the collapse of a temporary elevator tower at a problem-plagued construction site in Times Square killed an 85-year-old woman, and is the latest in a spate of high-profile construction debacles in Manhattan. Several blocks of the Avenue of the Americas, a busy artery, were shut down for more than two hours during the morning rush, as workers in hard hats stood a stoic vigil on a street corner, staring toward the shrouded body of their fallen colleague.
“I sit there every morning,” said William Hirrell, 33, a steel laborer at the site whose 53-mile commute from Greenwood Lake, N.Y., was delayed yesterday because of the storm. “That’s where I would have been if I was on time.”
The crane belonged to New York Crane, a subsidiary of Lomma Construction.
Officials at the city’s Buildings Department said the project had all its permits in order, and that inspectors had been careful to visit construction sites throughout New York on Wednesday and Thursday to insure that large cranes were tied down so the wind could not knock them around. But the extra safety measures backfired at the Avenue of the Americas site, investigators said, when yesterday morning’s crane operator either was unaware or forgot that the equipment was tied, and tried to hoist it up without releasing the restraints.
Richard C. Visconti, the Acting Buildings Commissioner, said that in preparation for the storm, the boom, or swinging arm of the crane, had been lowered and secured to the mast, or tower, with wire ropes, to avoid a wind-blown disaster. When the operator, Mr. Hettinger, tried to raise the boom while it was tied to the mast, the crane fell the equivalent of 18 stories to the ground.
Officials said that a work crew would typically have helped Mr. Hettinger undo the ropes, but that the responsibility ultimately resides with the crane operator.
“The crane operator is the one who has control,” Mr. Visconti said. “He has to make sure that he is operating it in a safe manner.”
Laquila/Pinacle officials did not return repeated calls yesterday, but Howard Shapiro, an engineer who helped the company get its crane permit, disputed city officials’ explanation of the accident. Asked what caused the accident, Mr. Shapiro said he was not sure, but “it may have involved wind.”
A city regulation prohibits crane operations in winds more than 30 miles per hour. Paul Knight, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University, said winds in Central Park were gusting at 25 miles per hour yesterday at 7 A.M. but had been as high as 30 in the previous hour.
Laquila/Pinnacle does not have a record of problems with the Buildings Department, but the company has paid a total of $145,000 in fines for OSHA violations since 1997. OSHA also has three open investigations into possible violations at Laquila/ Pinnacle work sites in Manhattan.
At the accident site, witnesses said they heard crunching and then scraping, and saw workers scrambling to get away as the crane swung and shook before falling to the ground. For most of yesterday, the mammoth piece of equipment stood mangled in the roadway, its frame arched in a backbend near the base, the arm pointed ominously down, and what once was the top mangled behind yellow police tape. Using two other cranes, workers climbed the twisted structure and removed it, piece by piece, finishing about 4 P.M.
“I see the people, five people, six people, they running fast,” recalled Nasser Hamood, 25, assistant manager of Olympia Deli, who watched the accident from his store on the northwest corner of the Avenue of the Americas and 25th Street. “It takes like 30 seconds for it to get down, shake, clack. I was just scared which way it was going to go.”
Norman Harrell, 58, an engineer from Bayswater, Queens, was greeted by the frightening sound of metal hitting concrete as he emerged from the F train at 26th Street.
“Before it fell it was going back and forth like a pendulum,” said Mr. Harrell, who works on 23d Street, near Broadway. “There were people panicked, moving, trying to get out of the way. I couldn’t do anything except get nervous.”