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Posted at 02:45 PM ET, 09/07/2011

Crane topples at National Cathedral, comes down ‘like thunder’

A crane toppled at the National Cathedral this morning, sending its operator to the hospital, damaging two out-buildings and crushing four vehicles that belonged to contractors.

Richard Weinberg, spokesman for the Cathedral, said he understood that the crane operator’s injuries were not serious. He said he was “not at liberty” to name the crane contracting company.


A fallen construction crane at the National Cathedral on Wednesday. (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON POST )

The crane was lifting supplies to the top of the cathedral at 3101 Wisconsin Ave. as part of the ongoing earthquake repair when it collapsed without warning at 10:55 a.m.

“We don’t know why it collapsed,” DC Fire/EMS Battalion Chief John Donnelly said. Wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph were reported in the area at the time of accident.

The operator was inside the crane when it fell. Weinberg could not confirm whether anyone was in the vehicles that were damaged. Twenty people were in the buildings that sustained damage but none were hurt, he said.

The bright yellow crane lay twisted on South Road, which runs along the south side of the cathedral. The road is mostly used by employees and passes by the main office of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, also known as Church House. The tip of the crane lay in front of Church House.

The Rev. Simon Bautista, canon for Latino Ministries for the diocese, said he was on a conference call with his staff as part of their ongoing planning for an Oct. 8 Latino celebration. The window of his second-floor office in Church House overlooks the parking lot.

Suddenly he heard a sound that was like “thunder,” Bautista said. “My office started shaking.”

When he looked out and saw the yellow crane sprawled on the ground, he said his first thought was that people must be hurt. When he learned that no one had died or was seriously injured, Bautista called that miraculous.

“You can see that this was a divine hand that kept something else from happening,” Bautista said.

The building that sustained the most damage was Herb Cottage, which is next to Church House on the east side. Its roof was clipped by the falling crane, Donnelly said. The building was already closed to the public and one of a handful of buildings on the grounds surrounded by a protective fence after the earthquake.

Herb Cottage is one of the oldest buildings on the cathedral grounds and was originally built as a baptistry. Most recently it was a gift shop that sold gift cards, spices and home decor, with the proceeds supporting the cathedral.

A spokesman for the cathedral said the iconic structure itself was not damaged when the crane came down.

The National Cathedral School and St. Albans School, both in their first day of classes, suspended their coordinated classes, in which students travel across the cathedral grounds to study at the other school, but there was no evacuation and no one was hurt, spokespersons for both schools said.

Federal occupational safety officials are investigating the crane’s collapse, Donnelly said.

The crane company has the responsibility to remove the disabled equipment, the fire chief noted. Timing is critical. The cathedral, put out of commission by the Aug. 23 earthquake, is supposed to reopen Friday to be the venue for a number of weekend events around the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, with President Obama scheduled to speak there Sunday night.

When asked whether the scene could be cleared by the time of Obama’s arrival Sunday, Donnelly took a deep breath.

“It’s gonna be tight. That’s my best guess,” he said.

This post was updated at 2:45 p.m. It will be updated as more information becomes available.

By and Theola Labbe-DeBose  |  02:45 PM ET, 09/07/2011

 
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