The state investigation into Saturday’s fatal crane collapse in South Lake Union was expanded to include a fifth company on Monday as city officials sought to explain why one of Seattle’s busiest streets remained opened to traffic as the crane was being dismantled.
Seaburg Construction, which employed the operator of the tower crane before workers began to dismantle it, will be among the companies to be investigated in connection with the collapse, according to the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I). L&I previously said it would interview officials and gather documents from four other companies, including general contractor GLY Construction, subcontractors Northwest Tower Crane Service and Omega Morgan, and crane owner Morrow Equipment.
Seaburg didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday.
L&I said the probes into the five companies don’t indicate that any of them were to blame at this stage. Opening formal investigations gives the regulator authority to conduct interviews and request records, according to L&I spokesman Tim Church.
While L&I investigates the companies working at the site, the City of Seattle answered questions Monday about why nearby Mercer Street, one of the city’s busiest arterials, was open to traffic as crews took apart the crane.
As Seattle has become the nation’s crane capital, the machines have signaled the city’s rapid growth and, often, interruptions to Seattleites’ daily commutes.
Last spring, in the same area where the crane fell Saturday, orange traffic cones blocked a lane of eastbound Mercer Street near the intersection with Fairview Avenue North due to a nearby hotel construction project. Last week, a block of University Street was set to be closed for another tower crane removal, according to SDOT.
When completing heavy work like disassembling a crane, construction companies can apply to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) for permits to close nearby streets.
But SDOT’s focus is largely on minimizing traffic impacts, and department officials indicated broad deference to construction companies to decide how many streets need to be closed to safely take down a crane or do other work.
“Generally the contractor tells us how they need to do their work — and this is true of all the work that’s happening in public space — and then we’re reviewing that for how to control traffic around it,” said SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe said it was too early to know what went wrong with the crane Saturday. “Obviously nobody expected the crane to collapse.”
To disassemble the tower crane, subcontractor Omega Morgan received an SDOT permit to close portions of Valley Street and Boren Avenue North Saturday and Sunday.
Omega Morgan did not seek to close Mercer, according to its permit application, provided by SDOT. SDOT also did not ask them to close it, said department Street Use Division Director Liz Sheldon.
“For cranes in particular, we’re really relying on the contractor and whoever the certified crane operator is to tell us what their needs are,” Sheldon said. “Once they tell us what their needs are, [we consider] how to defer traffic around that area.”
Other regulatory agencies, L&I and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) deferred to SDOT on road closures.
Omega Morgan did not respond to a request for comment about why it did not seek to close Mercer Street.
Mandi Kime, director of safety at the Associated General Contractors of Washington (AGC), said closures are typically focused on areas where contractors are doing work or staging. In this case, “the work process was not intended to be on Mercer,” Kime said.
“It’s very difficult to get street closures in the city of Seattle,” said Kime, citing myriad possible obstacles from overhead trolley bus lines to traffic to parades or other events. “We’re more than likely going to get talked down from what we want to something that’s workable for the city.”
Four of the companies working on the project where the crane fell are members of AGC, Kime said, and she was at the site offering them support on Saturday.
Kime did not know of a time when Seattle asked for additional street closures for safety.
“The city is trying to minimize closures as much as humanly possible. It would be much more likely [a contractor] would ask for two lanes or streets and get negotiated down to one.”
Omega Morgan’s permit application does not indicate the company asked for more street closures than it was granted.
Asked Sunday whether SDOT would reevaluate its process for street closure permits, Zimbabwe said only, “We’re just at the beginning of our understanding of exactly what happened and working with Labor and Industries. As they go through the investigation process, we’ll be able to understand more about what happened here.”
Seattle City Council members offered condolences to the families of the victims during a briefing Monday morning. Alan Justad, 71, of Seattle, and Sarah Wong, a 19-year-old Seattle Pacific University student, were killed when the crane struck their cars while they were sitting in traffic on Mercer Street. Ironworkers Andrew Yoder, 31, of North Bend, and Travis Corbet, 33, were working on the crane when it plunged to the street.
The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections was already scheduled to appear at a council committee meeting Wednesday and will now also provide an update on the department’s response to the crane collapse and take questions, said Councilmember Abel Pacheco.
There was little other information available Monday about the safety record of the project and its operators.
A year ago, regulators issued a serious violation notice to GLY involving the project at Fairview Avenue and Mercer Street, citing a section of state requirements related to storing, operating or dismantling equipment too close to high-voltage electricity. GLY contested it, and L&I withdrew the violation, according to federal data and a spokesman for the company.
In total, L&I has inspected the five companies involved a total of 65 times since 2014 and found a handful of violations, according to the agency. It wasn’t immediately clear how each case was ultimately resolved.
Northwest Tower Crane, which handled setting up and disassembling the crane, was also involved in a Bellevue construction project that was marred by a 2006 fatal tower-crane accident. A judge found no evidence that the company was responsible for the collapse, which killed a Microsoft attorney when the equipment crashed into his apartment.
Northwest Tower hasn’t responded to requests for comment on Saturday’s incident.
A construction-management plan filed by GLY with the city estimated that the tower cranes would be dismantled by last June. A spokeswoman for Vulcan Real Estate, which is developing the site for a Google campus, said that the plan was submitted before the general contractor received master-use permits, a process that took longer than expected. The project was proceeding on schedule, according to Vulcan and GLY.