A sky-high crane operator watches post-recession Washington come back to life

February 23, 2012

Tim Reese, who works in the sky, sees a Washington that few people do. From his perch above the skyline, he can take in a swath stretching from Silver Spring to Springfield just by turning his head. He sees rooftop gardens and sunlit monuments, presidential helicopters and racing motorcades. He has witnessed the grandeur of thunderstorms and, on one September morning, the horror of terrorism.

He has a pretty good view of the area’s economy, too, and based on what he sees looking down, things are looking up.

“Suddenly, there are cranes all over the place again,” says Reese, sitting last week in the cab of his own 190-foot tower crane at Ninth Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW. He takes a hand off the controls to gesture at the scores of erector-set silhouettes peeking over building tops, from City­CenterDC to the National Gallery to the campus of St. Elizabeths. “They’re back up here, and so am I.”

Reese, a veteran tower crane operator, was grounded for more than a year because the recession nearly brought large-scale construction in the region to a halt. After years of back-to-back projects, he noticed the cranes disappearing from the horizon in late 2009.

“They were dropping out of the sky like somebody cutting grass,” he says.

But last fall, he got a call from Hensel Phelps Construction to do the heavy lifting for the $550 million Marriott Marquis going up next to the convention center. He climbed the ladder of a German-built Terex crane and reassumed his sky-high saddle.

“I’ve never lost my fascination with it, how it stays up here, how much it can pick up,” says the 58-year-old Reese as he tweaks the right-hand joystick on the arm of his swivel chair.

The radio hanging next to him in the glassed-in cab crackles with directions from his spotter on the ground: “Gimme another foot or so. . . . All right, hold. . . . You got two feet of slack here. . . . Okay, clear.”

Reese looks between his boots through the plexiglass floor panel. A welding tank flies over the heads of his tiny co-workers as he finesses 70,000 pounds of lifting power with flicks of his thumbs. Massive as it is, the 246-foot lattice-steel boom is a nimble extension of the operator’s reach, a slender finger plucking bits from the ground.

“We got the wind up today, which is a pain,” he declares as the tank swings to a new spot in the rising grid of steel girders. “It wants to weathervane me.”

In a city where the law holds buildings to a relatively low-rise scale, crane operators have one of the few high-rise perspectives. But the perch comes at a price. The day begins with a 15-minute climb up a rough rebar ladder, which can be covered in ice or bird poop, depending on the season. (Reese left in place the Santa Claus that someone tied on the crane last December because it makes a decent scarecrow.) The latrine is an empty Clorox bottle, and you have to hope that every passing pilot gets a good look at the blinking red light above the cab.

On this day, the particular hassle is the wind. The cab, little bigger than a phone booth, sways with every gust. When the wind is too high, Reese will stop work and let the gale point the crane where it wants, rather than have it twist the whole tower free of its moorings. Three times, his cranes have been struck by lightning, showers of sparks cascading down as Reese waited it out with his feet pulled up in his seat, the hair on his arm standing up.

Operating a tower crane is not considered an especially dangerous job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from seven to 20 of the roughly 5,000 annual work-related fatalities in the past five years involved crane operators. But the accidents are spectacular, such as the 2008 collapse of a tower crane in Midtown Manhattan that killed four construction workers. In September, a truck-based crane brought in for earthquake-related repairs at Washington National Cathedral toppled, injuring its operator.

“If you look at craneaccidents.com, it’s usually when the crane is being raised higher that something happens,” Reese says.“You really have to do something stupid to get hurt up here.”

Still, he takes comfort in the many guardrails that separate him from a death plunge when he’s moving around outside the cab.

He’s never had a really close call, but there have been plenty of times — when the boom bends sickeningly under a massive load, for example — that he’s said a quick prayer.

“There are no atheists in tower cranes,” he said.

But the money is good, once an operator clears the three-year apprenticeship and multiple certification exams. After 38 years in the seat, Reese makes $33 an hour and can clear $100,000 in a boom year with lots of overtime. “That’s pretty much living at the job site,” he notes.

And there are less tangible pleasures. For Reese, who had to overcome a knee-buckling fear of heights to climb his first tower crane in 1974, favorites include incomparable sunrises (and on overtime days, sunsets), the regular fighter-jet salutes over Arlington National Cemetery, waving at the White House snipers when he’s working in that part of town. (“They don’t ever wave back.”)

He’s got an instant view of any part of the city. Earlier in the day’s shift, after radio reports of a fire at Anacostia High School, he only had to glance to the southeast to see the smoke.

He was working at a site near Lafayette Square on Sept. 11, 2001, listening to newscasts about planes hitting the World Trade Center in New York, when the operator of an adjacent crane radioed over. “Hey, Timmy, turn around and take a look at the Pentagon.”

“I’ll never forget it,” Reese says. “It was nothing but smoke. Reminded me of Beirut.”

His girlfriend at the time begged him to climb down, but he stayed up for hours, riveted, as the sky emptied of commercial air traffic and filled with fighter jets and medevac helicopters. When he finally climbed down, it was to hash out the new world order over beers with other crane guys, many of them members, like Reese, of Operating Engineers Local 77.

It’s been a long earthbound downturn for the brotherhood of high-end crane specialists, says Josh VanDyke, business manager for the local. But by this particular measure of construction activity, the work is back.

“Since last summer and fall, we’ve seen a dramatic increase,” VanDyke says. “There was nothing going on for a year or two, but now there’s every bit of 30 or 40 tower cranes in the air.”

District officials said permits to erect tower cranes had jumped dramatically by the end of last year, from 10 cranes in 2010 to 23 in 2011.

Reese filled the slow months working on smaller, mobile construction cranes. Back in the sky, he can see tower cranes all over, from Tysons Corner to something big on North Capitol Street.

The radio has just crackled its last (“All right, Mr. Tim, shut ’er down. See you Monday.”). But he stays in his seat, leans back and looks around the world that surrounds his workday.

The sun slanting from west throws long shadows from the cardinal high points of the Washington compass, the Capitol, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington National Cathedral, Reagan National Airport. Above them all, the Washington Monument, with its own see-forever view shuttered indefinitely as crews work to repair damage from the August earthquake.

“It’s always beautiful,” Reese says. “Almost every day, you can see the sun march up the horizon as the seasons change. I’m glad to be up here. Hell, I’m glad to be working.”

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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