Nerves rattled, but no one is hurt by toppled crane

A crane toppled onto an East Stonewall Street business Thursday after its operator failed to stabilize the machine.

No one was hurt. But the accident highlighted the dangers of construction cranes after a series of fatal accidents around the country. It also heightened the nervousness of nearby workers in construction-happy uptown Charlotte.

The mobile, truck-mounted crane was preparing to load sprinkler pipe from another truck into the new Afro-American Cultural Center on East Stonewall Street at about 10:50 a.m. The operator – employed by subcontractor Absolute Fire Control Inc. of Charlotte – extended the crane's left outrigger, a beam that helps stabilize the crane as it raises its boom.

But he didn't extend the right one, which would have blocked traffic on Stonewall, said Jeff Younts, a company vice president. The imbalance caused the crane, with boom extended, to tip over onto a Goodyear Auto Service Center across the street.

“My operator didn't use proper procedures,” Younts said.

He added that city officials required the operator to keep the lane open, but he declined to elaborate. Charlotte Department of Transportation spokeswoman Linda Durrett declined to comment.

It's industry standard for crane operators to extend both outriggers whenever a crane is in use, said Robby Jones, an N.C. Department of Labor supervisor who is heading the department's investigation of the accident.

The department's Occupational Health and Safety Division could fine Absolute Fire Control as much as $7,000 per violation if it finds the company violated federal safety regulations, Jones said.

Melissa Murray, an assistant manager at the Goodyear, said she glanced out the window and saw the crane slowly tip over and fall toward the building. She was more stunned than frightened.

“It came down real slow, and then just ‘boom,'” Murray said. “Then that ‘poof' of debris flying in the air, and everybody started going crazy out there. All the construction people were running around.”

She said the accident has made her more uneasy about working near the gauntlet of construction projects on Stonewall, from the planned NASCAR Hall of Fame up the street to the new Afro-American center, which is expected to open next year. Cranes are a common sight, Murray said, and “they've got some bigger ones around.”

A series of fatal crane accidents, including two this year in New York City, has focused attention on the hazards the large, unwieldy machines pose. But most of the construction cranes that have failed are stationary cranes, monsters that require engineered bases and can stretch their booms 30 and 40 stories skyward, Jones said.

The one on Stonewall was a mobile crane, mounted on and run from a truck and used for smaller, quicker jobs, Jones said. Absolute Fire Control, which installs sprinkler systems, was moving the pipe onto the site to prepare for installation starting Monday, Younts said.

The crane caused minimal damage to the building. Said Charlotte Fire Department Capt. Mark Basnight: “Certainly, this could've been much worse.”