For years, Seattle has been the crane capital of America — with more swinging across the skyline than anywhere else in the country. There are 59 here now.
And despite the high-wire acts they perform — crane operators climbing up to 600 feet in the air, multiple cranes on one project dancing to avoid one another as people walk underneath — the safety records of cranes here had been good leading up to Saturday’s fatal accident that killed four people in South Lake Union.
The region’s last fatal tower crane incident occurred in November 2006, when a crane toppled over in Bellevue and killed a Microsoft attorney sitting in his living room in a nearby building. That accident prompted the state to pass one of the nation’s strictest crane safety laws, which required state testing of the machinery, as well as enhanced crane operator certification and training starting in 2010.
The following video shows the fatal April 27, 2019, crane collapse from a dashboard camera and contains explicit language.
Since then, well over 100 cranes have been assembled, worked on projects and disassembled without incident.
While construction is generally a dangerous job, tower crane deaths are rare across the United States. A study from The Center for Construction Research and Training found just 18 fatal incidents from 1992 to 2006 — roughly one per year. Many more featured smaller cranes that are more common and mobile.
Among the historical tower crane accidents: In 1989, a crane fell 16 stories while being “jumped,” or raised in height, in San Francisco, killing five and injuring 22. In 1999, the “Big Blue” crane collapsed at a stadium in Milwaukee and killed three workers.
In 2008, one in New York collapsed while being jumped, damaging several buildings and killing seven, and injuring 11 first responders. And 10 days later, in Miami, a 20-foot crane section fell 30 stories while being jumped, killing two workers and injuring five others.
Then in 2016, a crane collapsed and killed a person in Lower Manhattan.
The construction industry is highly regulated, and tower cranes are no different.
In Washington, the Department of Labor & Industries must inspect each crane before it is launched into service. Because of the construction frenzy, cranes in Seattle must be reserved months in advance — but they can’t simply be shipped from project to project; they must return to be inspected between jobs. Cranes rent for up to $55,000 a month.
Some of the cranes are so close together, especially in downtown and South Lake Union, that crews now have to dance through a sort of synchronized crane ballet to avoid hitting one another with the long horizontal arms. Developers also have to secure air rights over other buildings and coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees flight paths.
“You do have to be careful,” local crane operator Matt Haider said in 2016, while working on a job in South Lake Union across the street from two other cranes. “Especially downtown, it’s super tight on some of those jobs.”
Construction teams in Seattle often work Monday through Saturday to meet tight deadlines.
The Google project, which began in 2017, was supposed to be finished by now, according to a timeline laid out last year by Vulcan Real Estate, the developer.
Crane operators have to climb as much as 600 feet up open-air staircases to reach their workstation each day, and usually stay up there until their shift is over. Inside crane operator cabs there are warning signs everywhere of danger: Electrocution, from touching power lines, is one danger. Seaplanes often buzz by. High winds and dense fog can force them to cancel a day’s work completely.
The horizontal crane arms often must be lowered or raised to avoid hitting other cranes — on the Google project, as many as three cranes were active at the site at one time.
“Some people think they can do it, and then they actually try to come up here,” Haider said. It’s “something not everybody can do.”
Some crane operators go to specialty school or learn on training cranes like the ones set up in an open area in Ellensburg. All crane operators must obtain an industry certification.
Dismantling cranes is also a delicate process. Crews typically shut down the entire street below to do so, and it can take hours.