Crane Accidents

An Accident Fuses Two Workers’ Lives Forever


New York

Original Story (5/30/2008):  Crane Collapse: Discussing the Intricacies of Construction Inspection

Donald Leo, a sturdy 30-year-old crane operator, was looking forward to a June wedding and then a honeymoon in Greece. Ramadan Kurtaj, a 27-year-old émigré who had fought for his life in Kosovo, worked long hours on water and sewer lines so that he could send money home to his parents.

But on a sparkling Friday morning, when a crane that Mr. Leo was operating came crashing down on 91st Street and First Avenue, it took with it the dreams of the two young men who were working on a site for a planned 34-story tower.

“It takes a toll on all of us,” said the Rev. Brian Jordan, who ministers to the building trades.

Friends and relatives said Mr. Leo and his fiancée, Janine Belcastro, were busy making last-minute preparations for their June 21 wedding on the Jersey Shore. More than 200 guests were expected, after which the couple had planned to set off on a two-week honeymoon.

“He loved my sister more than anything,” said Ms. Belcastro’s sister, Lynda Belcastro. “He was a family man. He loved to surf. He loved to fish. He loved his house. He loved everything that brought people together.”

In 2005, the couple bought a $300,000 duplex condominium a block from the ocean in Monmouth Beach, N.J. “It was their happy place because they met in a bar on the Jersey Shore,” said a brother, Larry Belcastro. “He was a happy-go-lucky guy.”

On Friday morning, Ms. Belcastro, 35, a social worker for the city’s Department of Education, got a phone message at her Staten Island office from her mother, who wanted to know where her fiancé was working.

At about the same time, Mr. Leo’s father, also named Donald Leo, who was working at another construction site nearby, learned of the crane collapse. He rushed to the accident scene, where he got as close to his son as he could.

“They told the father to step back,” said one fire official who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. “Things happened very quickly.” The official added that the “father said a prayer with the priest” beside his son and “reached out his hand and touched” his body.

Despite a crane accident in March that took the lives of seven people, Mr. Leo, a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 14, did not express any nervousness about his chosen profession. His father, 49, a retired lieutenant in the New York Fire Department, helped Mr. Leo join the union, Mr. Belcastro said.

“He loved it,” Mr. Belcastro said. “He was on a job a couple of months back where he could look straight down Fifth Avenue. He said it was so beautiful. He wanted my sister to see it. I don’t think he feared it at all.”

Mr. Kurtaj arrived in the United States two years ago from Kosovo, where he had fought as a soldier in the conflict in the Balkans.

For Mr. Kurtaj, his work with a water and sewerage company was a means to an end, said an uncle, Beke Nikqi, with whom he shared an apartment in the Bronx on Astor Avenue. In an interview in the entrance of their building, Mr. Nikqi described how Mr. Kurtaj not only helped support his parents in Kosovo, but Mr. Nikqi as well.

Mr. Nikqi, 33, suffered serious leg injuries about two years ago while working at a construction site on Houston Street. Today he walks with a cane and can no longer work in construction. He described Mr. Kurtaj as a “really hard worker” who wanted “a better life for his family.”

Mr. Nikqi said that he planned to travel to Kosovo this weekend to mourn with Mr. Kurtaj’s parents, noting that other relatives in Kosovo were already aware of the accident.

As the crane toppled, Mr. Kurtaj was struck by the huge chunks of debris, suffering injuries to his head, chest and legs. Mr. Nikqi and a cousin raced to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital after learning of the accident and talked to the doctor tending him.

The doctor said the injuries were “a bad situation, but hopefully he’ll survive,” Mr. Nikqi said. But soon afterward, at 12:30 p.m., they learned that Mr. Kurtaj had died.

“It’s not his fault,” Mr. Nikqi said mournfully as his voice trailed off.

Category: Famous, Report Update


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