The crane operator was named Wayne, but his steady signalman sometimes called him “Happy Feet.”
“He just bought his wife a chandelier,” said the signalman, John Rodriguez. “He wanted a plasma TV, but she wanted a chandelier and he wanted her to be happy.”
Rodriguez’s voice caught. He and Wayne had been working on their second high-rise together and they had become uncommonly close, communicating by radio all day, moving huge things with precision.
“They still didn’t find his body,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez’s eyes began to well, but he is not a man who cries easily. He steadied as he said that he was supposed to work Saturday and would have been up there with Wayne and the three others, but had decided to spend the weekend with his wife, Angela.
Rodriguez had been in Edison, N.J., when he got the call yesterday afternoon from a fellow worker who had just seen the crane collapse.
“He was screaming,” Rodriguez recalled.
Rodriguez raced to the scene with his wife and waited in Clancy’s Bar just up Second Ave. from the collapse as the firefighters and cops searched for the bodies of his ill-fated comrades. One of the workers who had been present when the crane collapsed sat at the bar and said they had all tried to hold onto each other, but three had been lost along with Wayne in the operator’s seat of the crane.
Another worker who had been there came in, covered with dirt and looking shaken. He had just seen one of the bodies. He said the detectives had asked them to make a formal identification at the morgue rather than at the scene.
“I think it’s Cliffy,” he said, “because he always wears a rain suit.”
Rodriguez stood with his wife, saying his father had also been a construction worker and when he was 7, or maybe 8, years old, he had tagged along with his dad to pick up his paycheck and a crane collapsed, killing one and pinning a female pedestrian.
“I just watched it fall over,” Rodriguez said.
That had been his first lesson in the dangers of construction work. He was now in the midst of the latest, waiting for word of Wayne.
“They didn’t even find him,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez stepped out into the gathering evening to speak to somebody. He returned looking stricken.
“They found Wayne,” he said.
His eyes welled again and now he was close enough to crying that he wiped his eyes with a white bar napkin. His wife touched his chest, made broad by work rather than working out. She gazed at him as he stood silent in his grief.
“They had chemistry,” Angela said of her husband and Wayne. “They were family.”
Another worker, Mike Hughes, came in and said they would be needed to help remove the wreckage. Hughes also might well have been killed had he not taken the day off.
Hughes and Rodriguez went out to make themselves available for work. Angela waited with Hughes’ wife, LaVerne. The TV in the bar showed the wrecked crane’s cabin amid the rubble and debris.
“That’s where Wayne was sitting,” Angela said. “A nice man. Such a nice man. Down-to-earth. A very humble man who was happy to do what he did.”
She remembered Wayne talking about his family and how he was just three years from a hard-earned retirement.
“He couldn’t wait just to spend the rest of his life with his wife,” Angela said.
She said she and her 32-year-old husband have nine kids and of course she worries about him.
“We never say goodbye,” she said.
But she knows that he is a construction worker the way others are firefighters or cops.
“They love what they do and they’re good at it,” Angela said. “He sweats concrete.”
“That concrete wrecks my washing machine,” LaVerne said.
They smiled and then started talking again about Wayne and the three others and all those who died making this a city of tall buildings.
“Construction workers, they’re the unknown heroes,” Angela said. “They build New York.”