A giant construction crane in downtown Bellevue tipped over Thursday night and smashed into an apartment building, killing at least one...

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A giant tower construction crane in downtown Bellevue tipped over Thursday night and smashed into an apartment building, killing at least one person in an apartment.

The 210-foot-tall crane toppled from a construction site about 7:45 p.m. It fell across 108th Avenue Northeast, a major downtown north-south thoroughfare.

At least three downtown buildings had severe structural damage: the Plaza 305 office building, the Civica Office Commons and the Pinnacle BellCentre, a mixture of stores on the ground level and luxury apartments above.

Also damaged was an adjacent restaurant, the Melting Pot.

Dozens of residents, diners and others were evacuated. Firefighters were going through the buildings late Thursday looking for other victims.

The crane operator, who was not identified, was trapped in the control cab of the yellow crane nearly 30 feet off the ground. Firefighters used a ladder to reach him, and he walked from the scene, according to fire officials. Bellevue Fire Department spokesman Lt. Bruce Kroon said the operator “rode the crane down” nearly 200 feet.

The operator suffered minor injuries and was taken to nearby Overlake Hospital for evaluation.

Fire officials said they were “red tagging” the buildings, meaning they were not safe to be occupied. The crane was left suspended over the street pending the arrival of investigators from the state Department of Labor and Industries.

Kroon said early today that searchers had not been able to access a collapsed portion of the Plaza 305 building because it was so dangerous. He said two smaller cranes were on their way to the scene to stabilize the fallen tower and wreckage before the search could be completed.

p>The crane was located at the site of Tower 333, a 20-story office building under construction at the corner of Northeast Fourth Street and 108th Avenue Northeast. The crane was anchored in a pit about five stories deep.

The crane was a tower-style construction crane, assembled in pieces on the site. Its tower supports a long cross-arm, or boom, that swung around the site, delivering materials. It is controlled by an operator in a cab above the ground, at the intersection of the tower and boom.

Recent Seattle-area crane accidents

Monday: David Keith, 59, of Everett, was killed when he was struck by a steel beam that fell while being lifted by a crane at a Kenmore construction site.

March 27: A 30-ton mobile crane with a 50-foot boom toppled on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, closing the bridge for most of the day. No one was injured.

Aug. 13, 2005: Dock worker Kim Miles, 40, of Sumner, was killed when a crane knocked an 8,000-pound shipping container from a ship that was being unloaded.

Aug. 13, 2003: Josh McMahon, 16, was killed when a 12-foot-high gantry crane slipped on loose gravel and fell on him while he was working at a wrecking yard in Lynnwood.

Feb. 16, 2001: Joann Beffert, 34, was trapped inside her pickup and her legs were shattered when a 175,000-pound crane fell on her vehicle at the Union Pacific railroad yard in Seattle.

June 10, 1999: Boeing worker Dean Morris, 55, was killed when the cab of the overhead crane he was operating detached from its ceiling rails and plunged 60 feet at Boeing’s Wing Responsibility Center in Renton.

May 26, 1999: A worker suffered a broken leg when a crane at a condominium construction site at 1000 Aurora Ave. N. collapsed while loading lumber.

Jan. 4, 1999: Construction worker Gabriel Halasz was injured when a 1,000-pound block and tackle swung out from a crane outside the Kingdome and struck a portable toilet he was using. Halasz was working on the Qwest Field Exhibition Hall.

Oct. 20, 1998: A crane loading culverts tipped over, downing power lines and smashing into a house on Mercer Island. No one was injured.

Sept. 6, 1997: Robert D. Miller, 58, of Buckley, was killed when a large construction crane fell on him in the 2900 block of Utah Avenue South in Seattle.

Jan. 27, 1997: A 44-year-old Auburn man lost his left leg after a truck-mounted crane at a construction site on the East Sammamish Plateau tipped over and struck him and another worker.

Aug. 17, 1994: Two construction workers were killed when a crane lifting them for emergency repairs in the Kingdome rammed into the ceiling, dropping a bucket containing the two men. William Louth, of Portland, and Jorge Turincio, of San Diego, plunged 250 feet to their deaths.

Bellevue Fire Chief Mario Trevino said the crane operator reported he was securing the crane for the night when he “heard a noise” and the crane toppled. Trevino said the accident is being blamed on “a catastrophic failure” of the crane.

“We’re told he’s [the crane operator] going to be OK,” said Bellevue police Officer Greg Grannis.

Cresta Holdeman was waiting on guests in a private dining room at the Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar on the first floor of the Civica Office Commons.

“It sounded like thunder, two waves, back to back,” Holdeman said.

Her co-worker Vic Nebre said it “wiped out some balconies and crashed into the restaurant. It happened right in the middle of our dinner rush.”

About 300 diners and 35 employees were evacuated.

Officials said the person killed was living in a fourth-floor apartment in the 248-unit Pinnacle BellCentre. His identity was not immediately available.

Ryan Peach, 28, a trained emergency medical technician, was working a second job as a waiter at the Melting Pot when the crane came down. He said he helped the first police officers on the scene search the apartments on the fourth floor.

Peach described a scene of terrific destruction. The ceilings had come down, along with wires and pipes, and there was nearly a foot of water on the ground from a broken water main. In one apartment, the crane had sliced through the walls and was lying across a couch.

“We were screaming in there,” trying to locate survivors, Peach said. “We couldn’t go in. It was just too dangerous.”

The most seriously damaged building was Plaza 305, next to the Tower 333 construction site.

The building was so badly damaged that Bellevue firefighters requested help from area urban search-and-rescue teams, including rescue dogs, which specialize in locating injured people in urban disasters and are trained in sifting through concrete rubble.

The Plaza 305 building houses several tech companies, including Intelligent Results, a software company that occupies the entire top floor.

“We were just sitting there about three hours ago,” said Tony Corneto, a software engineer. He said he and his fellow workers had watched the crane for months, often commenting on how it seemed to sway in the wind.

“Every day, we would talk about, ‘Hey, look at what they’re doing,’ ” he said. “If this had happened during the day, at least 20 people would have been killed.”

The Tower 333 building is being constructed on the site on which the late developer Eugene Horbach planned to build the Bellevue Technology Tower. Horbach’s plans ended when he lost the property in foreclosure 18 months before his 2004 death.

The Seattle office of Hines, an international real-estate firm, and Washington Capital Management announced plans for Tower 333 in March. The firm said the new tower would rise 20 stories and comprise approximately 400,000 square feet.

The crane is owned and operated by Ness Cranes. According to the company’s Web site, Ness “made major strides in upgrading our safety program” in 2005 by designating a safety director and incentive program to reward employees for working safely. The company’s crane fleet is inspected daily, the Web site says.

Ness Cranes was involved in one of the Seattle area’s most famous crane accidents.

Two construction workers were killed on Aug. 17, 1994, when the crane lifting them for emergency repairs in the Kingdome rammed into the ceiling, dropping a bucket containing the two men. William Louth, of Portland, and Jorge Turincio, of San Diego, plunged 250 feet to their deaths.

Louth’s family sued Ness Cranes and Pacific Components, the general contractor, for damages in U.S. District Court. Both firms reached a settlement in out-of-court mediation.

Turincio’s family also sued the two contractors. It wasn’t immediately known whether the suit was settled.

Tower cranes like the one that toppled in Bellevue are familiar sights in downtown Bellevue and Seattle, where numerous high-rise buildings are under construction. Andrew Morrow, regional sales rep for Salem, Ore.-based Morrow Equipment, the nation’s biggest dealer in tower cranes, and other crane operators predicted Seattle-area skylines would include more than 60 cranes this year, close to triple the normal number.

Use of a large tower crane can cost $90,000 a month, including rent and operators. The cranes are trucked in pieces. A 285-foot Liebherr 540 was brought to the 25-story Sheraton Seattle expansion in a convoy of 13 tractor-trailers late last year and set up in a weekend.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or pwhitely@seattletimes.com