They are as gods, these tower crane operators, and they had better be good at it.
Every morning, before dawn, at 5 o'clock or so, Jim Baker climbs 200 feet up a little steel ladder to the cab where he'll spend the whole day swinging three-ton buckets of concrete across the construction site, hoisting tons of plywood off flatbed trucks, setting re-bars for the ironworkers, lifting stone facing, even hauling injured men on stretchers out of the construction hole.
He climbs that ladder and then, he says, "I kneel down and pray. I thank God for my secular work. At the end of the day I kneel down and thank God nobody was hurt."
Power, control and solitude: the tower crane operator is the deus in the machina, the unmoved mover pivoting 175 feet of "jib," as the boom is called, through the air 200 feet above the people wandering around tiny in the construction helmets, the ones who wave to him like wounded ants, who call him on the CB radio for help with their loads: "Need a lift over by the backhoe, gimme a lift over by the northeast corner . . . "
Baker says: "The hardest thing is keeping your cool. Everybody uses the tower crane. You've got carpenters, laborers, ironworkers, plumbers, electricians, finishers--they all want you at the same time."
See them beseeching with their Day-Glo orange glove, hear that radio spit--it all seems to come from such a distance, up here where the only view is the sky, and microwave antennas, and other tower cranes.
Says Bob Gray, a crane operator working on the National Geographic addition on M Street: "It's like being in the forest and not paying a lot of attention to the trees. Sometimes I have to stop everything I'm doing and tell 'em to get their ---- straight."
Tower cranes are those giant structural steel mantises that loom and wheel over our skyline with extravagant simplicity. They are not to be confused with traction or "rubber-tired" cranes, with the ground-level cabs full of levers, the standard cranes until the Europeans invented the tower cranes and started selling them in America in the 1960s. Virtually all tower cranes are still built in Europe--Richier comes from France, Pecco and Liebherr from Germany, the Linden from Sweden. They can be operated from the ground, but few operators will forsake the vision they have from 200 feet up, even when they have to put up with the heat and smog in the summer (there's no air conditioning) and the backaches from bending over all day to stare down through the windows at the ground, and the solitude, and the bathroom which consists of a jug that operators keep in the cab with them. And the solitude.
"You have to be able to cope with being alone," says Butch Redding, whose father before him was a crane operator, too. (As was Jim Baker's.)
The tower crane, in fact, is not only astonishing for its size--it's the largest piece of construction equipment there is, sometimes weighing more than 75 tons, not counting the 150 or so tons of concrete it takes to build the base--but for its simplicity. It is one huge structural steel beam balanced on another one, both of them so impossibly long and thin and fragile-seeming that it takes a degree in advanced engineering to believe that they can remain standing--which occasionally they do not. On Wednesday, a crane mounted on a skyscraper in New York fell while being disassembled and killed a pedestrian. One fell at a site on Connecticut Avenue a number of years ago.
They are built to bend. "I had a student who was doing fine until he got to heavy loads," says Baker, who at 35, with 10 years' experience, teaches tower crane for Local 77, Operating Engineers. "He did fine with his load, but when he came down and watched the next guy work, he said to me: 'Did the jib bend that much when I was doing that?' I said it did, and he said goodbye. When I pick up two (cubic) yards of concrete--that's over 8,000 pounds--with the trolley 120 feet out from the tower, I can look down at this job on 14th Street and see the tower moving 10 to 14 inches. The jib pulls down at least six feet--I can be sure of that because when the bucket man dumps the concrete too quick, the bucket will go up so high he can't reach it."
Up in the cab, you can feel the whole crane twitching and leaning, all 75 tons of it, a sensation that induces a chronic vertigo in someone new to life 200 feet off the ground.
"It bothers me when it doesn't rock," says Bob Gray. "Then you can't tell how the load is moving."
When the tower gets too flexible, however, it's time to re-torque the bolts, which take 180 pounds of pressure applied by a special geared-down wrench whose handle can move two feet for every eighth of an inch the bolt turns. After re-torquing, operators can feel the difference.
Often it's mechanics who tighten the bolts, but in Washington, where union rules do not require a mechanic on the job at all times, it's the operators who maintain the mammoth electric motors, which pull about 500 volts, and walk or crawl the length of the jib to grease the pulleys, 200-or-so feet above the ground.
"I was working on a job in Richmond when an operator fell," says Baker. "He was climbing down the ladder, and apparently he slipped. The plumbers said it sounded like a 4-by-4 banging down. It broke every bone in his body."
Lightning is no worry. The crane is grounded. But, says Baker: "I was working at a job on 7th and Maryland one day when a thunderstorm came up. Lightning hit the crane, it sounded terrible. I looked down and there was a man laying face down on the ground. His hand had been touching the cable coming down from the jib. He was out of work a couple of days with a numb arm, the arm he was holding it with."
Gray remembers lightning driving "three- and four-foot flames" off the bottom of a concrete bucket, scattering concrete finishers.
Wind is the big problem. It doesn't threaten the crane, because if it gets too high, the operator just lets the jib swing free--"weathercocking," it's called. But working in the wind can get hard, trying to swing the jib against it. "The way I judge if it's too windy to work is if I can't swing the jib in third speed. At Holy Cross Hospital I refused to work one day, but the carpenter's foreman kept after me and after me to lift this load of plywood off a truck out in the street. I said I'd try it. As it happened, it was the foreman's son who was working on the truck. I got the jib almost all the way over there, I had the hook three or four feet away from him, but then the wind started to push it back. He reached out and grabbed it and it pulled him off the truck. The jib was gaining speed now, and he was too scared to let go of it. I could see it was going to smash him into a wall, so the only thing I could do was hoist him up eight floors and land him on the building. They never badgered me any more about working in the wind."
Like gods, and they'd better be good at it.
A tower crane is wonderfully simple but wonderfully hard to operate. The controls consist of two small levers. One governs the swing of the crane, and the movement of the trolley along the jib--the trolley being the mechanism holding the pulleys the cable hangs from. The other lever governs the lifting. The trick is to learn how to swing the jib while moving the trolley and lifting or lowering the load all at once.
At the National Square project on 14th Street, for instance, Baker will drop a concrete bucket down to one of two trucks on the street--trucks he can't see, as it happens, with his vision blocked by the rising building. This is called "working in the blind." When he lifts the bucket, he doesn't wait for it to clear the building before he starts swinging it--three or four tons of concrete heading straight for the building itself until what seems like the last moment, when, having risen faster than it swings towards the building, it clears it.
From 200 feet, even working with vision can be hard. Bob Gray likes to have enough sun that he can watch his load and its shadow converge as he tries to land it without a jolt. Baker watches the angle of people's faces as they watch the load come down. The closer to the tower the load is, the less perspective operators have, but the more weight the crane can carry-- in some cases up to 50 tons. Handling it becomes a matter of touch and instinct, especially on gray days when the ground is all concrete and equipment is covered with dust, and in the dark when the huge quartz lamps are glaring.
There are joys to this job, small amazements, large freedoms.
There was the raccoon Bob Gray found 160 feet up in his crane one day. And, he says, "Tower cranes make tremendous nesting areas. When I was working out at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, I had a chicken hawk build a nest and after the babies hatched she'd fly around me raising hell and squawking. On one job I was on, you could tell the time by these crows that would land right on top of the jib at 3:20--quitting time. They'd fly down and scavenge around the site."
Butch Redding says that there's a certain virtue to a rainy day, when there's little to do. "You just stay up there and listen to the radio or read the paper with the rain coming down. It's kinda nice." On the other hand, he says, "On a good day, when you're operating well, you'll get into a groove. You'll pour yourself a cup of coffee and you won't touch it for three hours."
Operators have the same rank as foremen, and they don't take much guff from superintendents, either, if they're good--construction companies like to hang on to good operators. The pay is $15.83 an hour plus overtime. Last year, Jim Baker made $42,000. But it all depends on luck, the economy and the vagaries of the construction business.
Operators report that the view from 200 feet can be startling--more than one young Washington woman likes to make breakfast in the nude, according to reports.
Baker says it's the winter skies that are prettiest, though summer has its moments.
"This morning we had a sunrise, the clouds were like cotton, the sun was like a ball of fire. I called one of the ironworkers and pointed it out to him."
Like gods. Lonely and benevolent, petitioned by all, moving in mysterious ways their wonders to perform.
Says Gray: "There's one good thing about being up here like this. I don't have to put up with a lot of bull."
Says Baker: "I try to keep a humble attitude."