Safety officials investigate uptown crane accident

State safety officials are investigating an accident Monday at the Wachovia tower construction site in which a crane dropped a load of steel beams, sending at least one hurtling onto a school bus.

The mishap, with no reports of serious injuries, was the second in less than a week to send broken glass shards raining down on busy uptown streets.

In the Monday accident about 1:30 p.m., several steel beams, each weighing about 75 pounds, fell from a crane hoisting them up the 48-story Wachovia tower under construction between South Tryon and South Church streets. As the 7-foot beams fell, they smashed about six glass panels on the Tryon side of the tower, said Curt Rigney, the project's manager for Batson-Cook Construction, the general contractor.

The school bus was not carrying students when the falling beam struck, leaving a 3-foot crease in the roof. At least one other vehicle was damaged, and broken glass scattered widely. Police and fire officials closed two streets for about a block around the area after the accident.

Material falling from buildings is “pretty rare,” said Robby Jones, a district supervisor in Charlotte for the N.C. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health division, which will investigate.

“It doesn't happen very often because they're supposed to have debris nets that catch these things,” said Jones, who has 17 years of experience.

He was not aware of last Tuesday's incident in which a glass panel fell at the same site, also scattering glass on the streets below. Companies are only required to report crane accidents in which a worker is killed or three or more workers are hospitalized. There were no injuries reported after last week's accident.

“A lot of times, when there's a high-profile incident, I'll assign an investigator,” Jones said on Monday night.

A spate of fatal crane accidents this year has focused attention on the machines' hazards. At least eight people died in two New York accidents and one in Miami.

In Charlotte in August, a much smaller crane toppled on East Stonewall Street, damaging a Goodyear Auto Service Center. No one was injured.

There are no rules about how far away pedestrians and traffic must be kept when a crane is lifting material, said Jones, Rigney and another construction expert. Jones said safety rules don't allow a crane to lift material over workers' heads. Workers on the Wachovia project sometimes briefly halt vehicles and pedestrians while material is lofted overhead.

“We've got our own procedures that we'll evaluate,” said Rigney, who didn't provide specifics. “We'll make sure everything was followed and see if anything needs to be changed.”

A Batson-Cook operator was running the crane, which is rented from Morrow Equipment, he said. Rigney didn't know whether that operator was the one involved in last week's drop. He also didn't know what happened in that accident. All Batson's operators are certified, he said, by the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators.

In North Carolina, the crane industry is largely self-regulated. Operators do not have to have special certification. The state labor department says there have been 10 fatalities related to crane operations in the last decade.

A 2006 accident in Charlotte, in which a small crane fell into an uptown street, prompted discussion about local crane safety oversight

Rigney said the company's investigation into Monday's incident will include interviewing the operator, witnesses and employees of the subcontractor that attached the beams to the crane's hook, called rigging.

“In the process of flying it up, the beams got free of the rigging,” Rigney said. “That's what's under investigation.”

The beams dropped Monday are small compared with ton-plus pieces also used in the building. The largest glass panels are about 5 feet by 6 feet and weigh up to 250 pounds, Rigney said.

There are 15 large cranes working uptown, said Jason Kenna, service manager with Heede Southeast, the Pineville company with nine of the cranes. None of the company's cranes was involved in either incident. Kenna said procedures for clearing the zone beneath a loaded crane vary by project. Sometimes, he said, people are blocked from the area of the crane's reach. Rigney said the arm on the crane that dropped the beams on Monday has a reach of about 120 feet.

Last week, one worker sweeping up glass said the wind caught a panel as it was being lifted. Uptown's tall buildings sometimes block the wind, a benefit for crane operators. But the buildings also can funnel the wind, increasing its force.

On Monday, school bus No. 1017 had a large dent over the driver's area but no broken windows. The female driver was taken to the hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening, said a spokeswoman for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. A medical exam is standard procedure after an accident, said Kathleen Johansen. Early Monday evening, she didn't know the driver's condition or whether she had been admitted or released.

Anita Ramirez of York, S.C., was driving a gray Dodge Ram pickup past the building when the debris tumbled. She was behind a man driving a white Infiniti sedan.

“I started hearing the glass falling,” said Ramirez, whose truck top was dented by the falling pieces. “The other guy, the guy in front of me, he didn't seem to react. He didn't move. So I got around him in a hurry. That was frightening.”

Staff writer Christopher Kirkpatrick and staff researchers Maria David and Marion Paynter contributed.