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Crane Collapse Kills 3

Disaster leaves 5 injured, shuts down busy highway

Feb 17, 2004 | Toledo Blade

In the Toledo area’s worst construction accident in decades, three ironworkers died and five other workers were injured yesterday after a 2-million-pound crane collapsed at the southern end of the new I-280 bridge in East Toledo.

Rescue crews spent four hours recovering the dead as fellow construction workers held vigil in 20-degree weather and onlookers stood stunned at a construction project touted for its engineering ingenuity and safety record.

"It just looked like you pulling an erector set apart," witness Lee Timmons of East Toledo said.

"They were very experienced ironworkers. None of them were rookies. They were very good, top men," said Joe Blaze, business manager of Ironworkers Local 55 in Toledo. "This is just a tragic day for the ironworkers and their families."

The Ohio Department of Transportation expected to keep I-280 closed today as Toledo police and occupational safety officials continue assessing what went wrong to send one of two 315-foot erection truss cranes 60 feet into the median of I-280.

"Obviously this is very complex," said Rich Martinko, ODOT’s assistant director of highway management.

"We really don’t have any answers or any indication what led to this," he said.

Part of the crane spilled over a concrete construction barrier about 10 feet into the left lane of northbound I-280, but no vehicles were hit and no motorists were injured.

The twin $3 million cranes, built in Italy especially for the I-280 project, are the highest profile pieces of equipment used to build the elevated roadway leading to the future cable-stayed span over the Maumee River.

Normally, the back end of the crane rests on a pier at the most recently completed section of roadway.

A middle set of legs rests on the closest pier and the crane’s front edge stretches to the next pier beyond.

The crane lifts the sections of roadway into place. Once a span of roadway is complete, the crane’s back end and middle legs each move to the next respective piers, and the cycle repeats.

The workers were readying to repeat such a cycle when the crane fell near the Front Street exit ramp off northbound I-280.

About 500 feet away, Mr. Timmons said he was sitting in his living room on Graham Street, next to Ravine Park, when he heard a boom. He ran outside and gazed at the crane.

"It started going ‘boom, boom, boom, boom,’ and the whole thing started falling down," Mr. Timmons recalled.

To Maurice Habbouche, who was driving south on I-280, the sound was more like a tornado.

"It was loud, an incredible noise," the Oregon resident said.

"I thought somebody had hit my truck, so I started looking around and saw yellow stuff coming down."

Behind Mr. Habbouche was Pemberville resident Bill Burton, who witnessed sections of the yellow crane tumble down into the median, crushing the trailer of a construction semi ferrying sections of precast concrete roadway to the project.

"It was like slow motion. I just stopped the car and watched," Mr. Burton said.

"I can’t believe I saw that. I’m looking at it, and I still don’t believe it."

Construction workers, motorists, and rescue crews rushed to find the three dead workers and begin evacuating the injured.

A collapsed construction crane rests against a pier of the northbound segment of the I-280 bridge over the Maumee River.

Some construction workers stood in stunned disbelief. Others dialed their cellular phones to call loved ones and tell them they were OK.

Ironworkers requested that authorities allow them to help retrieve and carry the bodies to the ambulances, Mr. Blaze said.

"Nobody was leaving until everyone was accounted for," Mr. Blaze said.

The injured were taken by ambulance to St. Vincent. The men were being treated for numerous problems, including closed head injury, spinal injuries, and injuries to the abdomen, chest, and extremities, said Dr. Randy King, associate director of emergency medicine.

Dr. King said it is difficult to tell whether the men were hurt from the fall or from heavy debris that could have fallen onto them.

Heather Guy said she accompanied a friend to the scene to see if the friend’s boyfriend had been among those hurt.

They drove to city Fire Station No. 13 at Front and Consaul streets to check the list of the injured. After waiting for news, they found out the worst: the friend’s boyfriend, Mr. Moreau, was among the dead.

"From what I knew of him, he was a wonderful person," Ms. Guy said.

Across town, a friend of Mr. Phillips, John Cook, described Mr. Phillips as "a great guy, a great family man."

"He’d do anything for you. This was horrible. He had a little boy and a little girl," said Mr. Cook, a neighbor for about eight years.

Mr. Blaze remembered Mr. Lipinski, at 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, as an excellent worker and a "mountain of a man."

Friends with all three victims, Mr. Blaze said the tragedy literally hits home for the tight-knit union, where all the victims had family that were or are in the union.

Mr. Lipinski’s father was an ironworker. So was Mr. Moreau’s father. And Mr. Phillips’ father and brother were ironworkers, Mr. Blaze said.

Among the injured, Mr. Collins’ father and brother were ironworkers as well as Mr. Clark’s father. Mr. Henneman’s son is an ironworker who was at the site yesterday and watched his father being rescued.

"What happened today affects generations," Mr. Blaze said.

Several family members and friends of the dead and injured gathered at the fire station, where they were met by Red Cross workers and chaplains, including Father Francis Speier, and given food from Tony Packo’s Café.

"They are in shock," said Father Speier, the fire department’s chaplain. "They’re dealing with it as best they can."

The family of Mr. Moreau are among those awaiting word on what exactly happened.

"They have a lot of questions that don’t have answers, and probably never will," Ms. Guy said.

The accident appeared to be the worst in the Toledo area since May, 1976, when four workers riding in a construction basket plunged 300 feet into a smokestack at Detroit Edison’s Monroe power plant.

The last fatality of a worker building a Toledo bridge came in 1956, when a steel worker fell 40 feet during the construction of the Craig Memorial Bridge, which currently carries I-280 over the Maumee River.

ODOT’s Mr. Martinko vowed a complete investigation of the crane collapse.

"We don’t want to rule anything out. Everything is in play: structural, mechanical, the process, the human issue," he said.

Mr. Blaze said the ironworkers were hand-picked for the job: "They knew what they were doing."

As for the cause, Mr. Blaze said he did not know and wouldn’t speculate: "We’re going to let the professionals sort this out."

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will bring in agency engineers from Chicago and Cleveland today to help decipher what caused the collapse of the crane.

The mammoth structure was made by the Italian firm Paolo de Nicola and delivered in pieces early last year to the site, which is overseen by general contractor Fru-Con Construction Corp.

The company’s heavy civil construction group was formed in the summer of 2001 and was awarded its first project in March, 2002, the Maumee River Crossing.

The cranes normally take a week to complete each 150-foot span. They had completed the construction of the 11th set of spans late last week and yesterday were being moved into position for the 12th span when the northbound-side’s crane fell.

Mr. Martinko said there was no load on the crane when it fell.

The accident occurred less than 11 months after a hydraulic boom crane tipped over as it was lifting a 58,000-pound concrete form onto a pier.

The operator injured a finger in that accident, which occurred about 200 yards south from the scene of the tragedy.

In January, 2003, a fire began atop a bridge pier.

Still, prior to yesterday’s accident, the I-280 bridge project the largest and most expensive in state history had experienced only five lost-time injuries during 1.3 million man-hours worked, according to ODOT spokesman Joe Rutherford.

"That’s about 400 percent better than what OSHA would consider acceptable for a project like this," Mr. Rutherford said.

"The safety record on this project, up to this point, had been exemplary," he said.

Fru-Con officials declined to comment, but their Web site touts their safety efforts.

"Safety is not just a statistic or policy at Fru-Con - it’s our culture," according to the company’s Web site. "A zero-incident policy permeates the entire organization."

Until yesterday, the bridge had been showcased as a construction success story. Dignitaries regularly toured the project, which was under budget and expected to be completed by Labor Day, 2005, 14 months ahead of schedule.

Councilman Peter Gerken, a member of the Maumee River Crossing Task Force that has helped spearhead the project, said that now the project’s legacy has changed.

"Everyone knows the dangers of these kinds of construction. Until now, the topic had been how fortunate we were to get this far with no serious injuries," he said.

Councilman Peter Ujvagi, whose district covers the site of the accident, said the scene left him in "absolute dismay and total sadness for workers and their families."

"These are hard-working guys who take some major risks," Mr. Ujvagi said.

ODOT plans to close I-280 near the bridge until it can ensure that the bridge’s piers and roadway are safe for workers and passing motorists. ODOT has had limited shutdowns of the highway during past phases of construction.

During those times, as now, northbound motorists are diverted off the highway at State Route 795. They can reenter the northbound lanes after the construction zone.

Southbound motorists are diverted at I-75, and can re-enter the southbound lanes after the construction zone.

ODOT officials were not sure how much longer it will take to complete the bridge. When that happens, Mayor Jack Ford said, the events of yesterday will not be forgotten.

"I think people will remember that not only was the building of the bridge a monumental task, but that three at least three men died in the making of the bridge."

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