Since Saturday’s collapse of a towering construction crane on the East Side of Manhattan, attention has understandably focused on the central and spectacular details, on the lives lost, the 22-story crane that toppled, the building that was demolished. But in New York’s tightly packed urban grid, even a calamity of such magnitude may be punctuated with sights that people find curious and strange.
One of the oddest footnotes to the collapse has to do with a 20-foot steel I-beam that was catapulted into the air by the falling crane and hurled more than a football field’s length through the sky.
It shot like a spear through the roof of a town house on the next block.
Then down through four floors and a brick wall.
And ended up lodged in the concrete floor of the basement of a town house next door, its top half in the kitchen on the first floor, just inches from a microwave oven and a stainless steel Wolf range.
“I’ve got to tell you, this is the reason some people go to church,” marveled Scott Claman, a lawyer for the building’s owner, Dusan Paunovic, an Italian fashion designer. Mr. Paunovic lives in Milan but uses the town house when he is in New York. He was not in town when the crane fell. Remarkably, no one was in either building.
“It’s almost like a cannonball or a battering ram came through here,” Mr. Claman said. “It’s so lucky, it just barely missed the pipes.”
Seven people were killed in the collapse, six of them construction workers. The investigation into the cause continued Tuesday.
The crane’s 200-foot-tall tower fell as workers were preparing to attach it with steel struts to the 18th floor of a building under construction at 303 East 51st Street, near Second Avenue. A Buildings Department official said that the I-beam that landed in the town houses appeared to have been one of the struts that was in the process of being connected to the tower. The falling tower may have acted as a catapult, tossing the heavy beam into the air.
The I-beam remained embedded in the town houses on Tuesday, where it was an object of curiosity and awe. A steady parade of firefighters, police officers and construction workers trooped into the town house at 308 East 50th Street to gape during breaks from the grim work across the street, where rubble was being cleared from the site of a similar town house that had been flattened as it took the full force of the falling crane.
“Hey, you’ve got to see this,” one firefighter shouted to another, beckoning him inside Tuesday to see the I-beam.
“Imagine that you’re sitting there eating and a giant beam comes through the microwave,” said a uniformed officer standing guard outside the door.
“Like a shish kebab,” said Keith Cartica, a Fire Department battalion commander, catching his breath at the sight.
The massive beam rested at a 45-degree angle, slicing through the white-painted kitchen of the town house. One thick end emerged from the brick wall the house shared with its neighbor. The other disappeared into a three-foot-wide hole in the polished wood floor.
A white cabinet had been blown off the wall where the beam struck. It lay splintered on the gray granite counter. A bottle of Beaujolais was cut in half and splattered on the floor at the foot of the stainless steel Sub-Zero refrigerator. Bits of masonry and wood and plaster and the red dust of pulverized bricks lay everywhere. One floor below, in the cellar, the tip of the beam had come to rest in a shallow crater in the gray-painted concrete floor, a foot from the boiler. The low tin ceiling hung down; it had peeled away like the lid of a sardine can.
The electricity was shut off after the disaster, and a glimmer of light from the hole in the ceiling played through the darkness on Tuesday.
“Two inches one way, it hits the gas stove. Two inches the other way, the boiler line,” Mr. Claman said. “Either way, the building could have exploded. It’s almost as if the house fought back.”
The destruction next door at No. 306 was no less startling. The house was closed, but through a window, it was possible to see the top end of the I-beam protruding through the wall into a hallway.
The four-story building is owned by Jonathan Levine, according to city records. Calls to Mr. Levine were returned by a man who identified himself as Walter Stern. He said Mr. Levine had not yet had a chance to have the hole in the roof patched. He would not discuss the remainder of the damage. “I’m not in a position to characterize it except to say that it’s serious,” Mr. Stern said.
Meanwhile, construction crews pulled large pieces of the crane, including its smashed cab, from the site across the street where a town house and bar were demolished. The pieces were carted off on flatbed trucks to be examined as part of the investigation.
Workers also retrieved some battered artifacts from the bar, Fubar. They included an old-fashioned cash register and two bottles of Johnnie Walker black-label Scotch whiskey. They were dusty but unbroken.