At the moment a load of beams fell from a crane lifting them up the 48-story Wachovia tower, safety workers had stopped traffic and pedestrians from moving past the construction site at South Tryon and Stonewall streets.
As the beams struck glass panels, shards fell. The safety workers fled, and traffic started moving into the path of falling debris, said project manager Curt Rigney.
Details emerging about Monday's accident raise questions about who is responsible for protecting people and vehicles around construction sites. The mishap is the site's second in less than a week to fling broken glass onto busy uptown streets.
There were no serious injuries reported in either case, although on Monday one beam struck a school bus.
But there is deadly potential in the heavy materials routinely hoisted overhead. State safety officials are investigating Monday's accident.
A Charlotte Department of Transportation handbook includes rules for contractors on such issues as traffic control, notification requirements for road-closures and allowing access to businesses along the road, according to the department's Web site.
The “pedestrian considerations” section of the Work Area Traffic Control Handbook says: “A canopied walkway may be required to protect pedestrians from falling debris.” It does not say what circumstances require such a canopy.
Around the Wachovia site, sidewalks are closed, as are street lanes. That's what the general contractor, Batson-Cook Construction, wanted, Rigney said.
“It's safer for the pedestrians and safer for us,” he said.
Sidewalks across South Tryon were littered with glass in both accidents. But they're not part of the job site, and Rigney said Batson has no authority or requirement to erect canopies there.
This year, officials in New York and Miami tightened rules governing crane operations following a trio of fatal crane accidents. The crane industry in North Carolina is largely self-regulated.
Rigney said establishing a clear-zone beneath a crane load is up to the contractor. The state safety official leading the investigation of Monday's incident has said rules only mandate that loads not be lifted over employees' heads.
The city transportation department governs the public right-of-way along streets uptown, including those that border construction sites. Construction companies lease space from the city when they operate equipment in the right-of-way, Linda Durrett, a department spokeswoman said in an e-mail. She said she was unable to answer further questions Tuesday about regulating construction sites.
“The City expects lease holders to operate in a safe and proper manner at all times,” Durrett wrote.
Rigney characterized the recent incidents as freak accidents. Last week, workers inside the Wachovia tower were installing glass panels, which can weigh up to 250 pounds. They broke one panel, perhaps by bumping it against a wall. The pieces flew to the ground.
Rigney said the company worked with city transportation officials for approval of the sidewalk and lane closures. He said signs and barricades are required if a road is to be blocked for several hours or longer. But he said, that's not the case during the brief periods when a crane is carrying material overhead.
“We get our own game plan together,” he said.
That plan, on the Tryon Street side, involves stopping everyone from the intersection with Stonewall to a point just past the site, he said. That procedure was followed on Monday, Rigney said. But it fell apart when a load of seven-foot steel beams came loose from a crane above the 26th floor.
“The guys that were holding traffic back ran as the debris was coming down,” Rigney said. “In that instant, the bus driver moved forward. She may have thought, ‘Hey, I can go.'”
The falling beams all landed within the job site, but one apparently bounced out, smacking the roof of the bus and leaving a three-foot crease.
Using “spotters” to control traffic is common, said Stewart Burkhammer, a Maryland construction safety consultant. But adding a light-weight barrier could be a good back-up “in case something starts falling and the spotter runs.”
Rigney said the company has not determined the cause of the accident and has been interviewing witnesses, the crane operator, its employees and those of a subcontractor that loaded the beams. He didn't know whether the operator had previous accidents but said he has worked for Batson on other projects and has more than 15 years experience.
Rigney, who has about 15 years in the industry, was at the site during Monday's accident.
“Your guts just turn upside down,” he said. “You want to make sure everybody is safe.”