The crane operator lugs his lunchbox and thermos into the cab high in the air as his father had before him, and he sits alone. Below him, the riggers work in the open air, and at the end of the day, they all climb down and make their way to their homes in other boroughs and the suburbs.
Four of the workers who did not come home on Saturday after the collapse of a crane on Manhattan’s East Side were remembered on Sunday by relatives and friends as being proud of the work they did. The description of one of them could have perhaps fit any of them.
“A man’s man,” said Hector Mitchell, 43, of the Bronx, who was a neighbor of one of the victims, Aaron Stephens, 45. “A nice, friendly guy who was always smiling.”
The other victims were Wayne Bleidner, 51, of Pelham, N.Y., the crane’s operator; Anthony C. Mazza, 40, a rigger, of Staten Island; and Brad Cohen, a rigger whose age and address were not immediately available.
Their last moments must have been horrifying, co-workers said on Sunday. They said the operator, Mr. Bleidner, was most likely trying to spare more lives by exerting what little control he had from the cab as the crane toppled over more than a city block.
“What’s going through his head is he’s trying to control it as best he can, to no avail,” said Jim Conway, a fellow member of Local 14 of the Operating Engineers Union. The other three men belonged to Local 15, Mr. Conway said.
If the men felt that they were in any danger as they ascended the crane each day, they did not seem to show it at home.
“He loved his job, loved his job,” said Roger Chugh, 53, a neighbor of Mr. Bleidner’s. “He was always happy with what he was doing, and he knew what he was doing.”
He had learned from his father, Robert Bleidner, a crane operator now retired, who took him along to construction jobs when Wayne was a boy. “I’d sit him on my lap. He loved it,” Robert Bleidner said. “That’s when the bug got him. When he was older, that was all he wanted to do.”
The father tried to talk him out of it. “I wanted him to do something else,” he said. But after briefly studying accounting in college, Wayne Bleidner got a job on the cranes. “He chose it, and he was extremely good at it,” his father said.
Men who learned from their fathers are a shrinking breed in construction, with a rise in those who begin their careers through an apprentice program, Mr. Conway said.
“That’s vigorous, very skillful work. It requires a lot of skill and attentiveness,” he said. “The crane operator has to keep it balanced, the crane. You have to keep the hook at a certain site and the crane at a certain radius. You have to keep it at a fine balance at all times. That’s their job, and that’s their only job.”
Mr. Bleidner worked in the small cab with levers for the swing and the boom, and a hoist that moved the hook up and down, with brake pedals to slow its fall. He communicated with his co-workers with radios and hand signals.
It was a job held 24 years ago by Thomas O’Brien when he suffered a nearly fatal crane accident. On Sept. 8, 1984, his crane collapsed on the site of a planned 78-story tower near Carnegie Hall. Experts later praised Mr. O’Brien for guiding the crane down where no one else would be injured, but Mr. O’Brien lost his right leg in the accident.
“It’s lonely at the top, as they say,” Mr. O’Brien, now 68, said from his home in Cornwall, N.Y., on Sunday. “When you went up there in the morning, you didn’t come down until night.”
Mr. Chugh said he spoke with Mr. Bleidner on Friday, and said that Mr. Bleidner told him that his crane was up and running on East 52nd Street, and that he was working at the level of the 19th floor of the planned 43-story condominium. The next day, Mr. Chugh said, he was surprised to see so many cars coming to Mr. Bleidner’s house, with its white picket fence and the garden gnomes posed as construction workers. He feared the worst when he heard of the accident.
“I told my wife, ‘I hope everything is all right with Wayne,’ ” he said. “ ‘He’s working in that neighborhood.’ ”
“Heartbreaking,” he added. “Someone so young, so early. He’s not supposed to die like that. He will be missed in this neighborhood as a great man.”Friends said Mr. Bleidner’s favorite subject of conversation was his 10-year-old son, Robert. Another neighbor, Sylvester Giustino, 82, broke down in sobs as he recalled the man who shoveled his driveway after snowstorms and brought the newspaper to his front door every day.
“He was a great guy. I can’t even talk,” Mr. Giustino said. “I guess I’m going to have to shovel his sidewalk now.”
The riggers would have been working on the part of the crane called the climbing frame, Mr. Conway said.
Mr. Stephens, one of the riggers, was known among co-workers as Superman, said his stepson, James Robinson, 27.
“He would lift things they couldn’t lift,” Mr. Robinson said outside his stepfather’s apartment in Bedford Park, in the Bronx.
A neighbor, Giselle Carr, 26, remembered Mr. Stephens as a muscular man who went to work in simple clothes, a thermal shirt and jeans. He had two daughters, who are 12 and 14. A cousin of his wife who gave only her first name, Sheryl, said that Mr. Stephens never missed his younger daughter’s basketball games and sold Girl Scout Cookies at work.
Mr. Robinson spoke with the same confusion and outrage as family members of the other victims. “If it was inspected and ready to go, why did it fall over like that?” he said of the crane.
By way of small consolation, he added, “He was doing what he loved. There’s no good way to go, but I’d rather him go doing what he loved.”
Mr. Mazza was a lifelong resident of Staten Island, growing up in Westerly and graduating from McKee High School, relatives said. He took up construction after graduation and married his wife, Thalia, in 1999. Their son, Carmine, is 3.
When he was not helping to build high rises in the cramped spaces of Midtown Manhattan, Mr. Mazza could often be found outside the city on his cherished Harley-Davidson. Or in his grandfather’s 1955 Chevy Bel Air, which he had carefully restored, said Melissa Farley, a sister of Mr. Mazza’s wife.
The family of Mr. Cohen could not be reached on Sunday.
Mr. Bleidner’s father said he wished he could have seen him on his last job. “I told my son, I told him, ‘I want to come down there and see that crane. I don’t want to sit in it. I just want to see it,’ ” Robert Bleidner said. “I wanted to see Wayne work it. But I never got the chance.”