Crews Search NYC Crane Collapse Rubble

By: AP
By: AP

NEW YORK (AP) -- Search dogs sniffed the rubble. Rescuers aimed thermal-imaging cameras and listening devices into crevices. Some pulled at bricks with their gloved hands.

Crews worked through the night and into the morning Sunday, sifting mounds of debris in search of survivors after a towering crane at a construction site toppled like a redwood across a city block, destroying buildings and killing at least four people.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at least 10 others were injured in what he called one of the city's worst construction accidents. The dead were all believed to be construction workers.

"I heard a big crash, and I saw dust immediately," said Maureen Shea, a 66-year-old retired banker who was lying in bed talking on the phone when she glanced out her window and saw bricks raining from the sky. "I thought the crane was coming in my window."

The crane split into pieces as it fell Saturday afternoon, pulverizing a four-story town house and demolishing parts of five other buildings. Cars were overturned and crushed. A dust cloud mushroomed over the neighborhood. Rubble piled several stories high.

"It's a horrible situation, very gory. There's blood in the street," said Lt. Gov. David Paterson, who is to be sworn in as governor Monday.

Several blocks remained closed through the night and some residents were forced to stay at a nearby high school serving as a Red Cross shelter.

Carolyn Cempa and her husband went to the shelter Saturday night for information about the extent of damage to their building and when they might be allowed to return home. She said she has heart medicine in her apartment that she needs.

"The fireman came over and said it's not safe, maybe tomorrow," she said. "That's not good."

The crane stood at least 19 stories high and had been attached at various points to the side of a half-built apartment tower. The crane was to be extended Saturday so workers could start work on a new level of the planned 43-story building, said an owner of the company that manages the construction site.

A piece of steel fell and sheared off one of the ties holding it to the building, causing it to detach and topple, said Stephen Kaplan, an owner of the Reliance Construction Group.

"It was an absolute freak accident," he said. "All the piece of steel had to do was fall slightly left or right, and nothing would have happened."

Kaplan said the company had subcontracted the work to different companies and was not in charge of the crane. Phone messages and an e-mail left for the crane's owner, New York Crane & Equipment Corp., were not returned.

"There are no words to describe the level of devastation we feel today as a result of this tragic event," James Kennelly, the lead partner at East 51st Development Company, which owns the property, said in a news release.

When the crane collapsed, part of it landed on a four-story brownstone, rendering it a pile of brick.

"Our bar is done. The crane crashed the whole building," said John LaGreco, who owned a tavern called Fubar in the brownstone's ground floor. "The crane crashed the whole building. If I wasn't watching a Yankees game, I would've come to work early and gotten killed."

Fubar was closed at the time but an employee, Juan Perez, was inside, LaGreco said. Perez was pulled from the rubble about 3 1/2 hours after the building was crushed. His leg was fractured, LeGreco said.

No one else had been found in the demolished brownstone as of Saturday night, authorities said.

Residents of the affluent block on Manhattan's East Side said they were grateful the accident occurred on a weekend when fewer people are in the area.

"We would be dead if it wasn't on a Saturday," said Bryan Beus, an assistant for an artist who had office space in the crushed brownstone.

Some residents said they had complained to the city several times about the construction site. Crews worked illegal hours and the building was going up too fast, they said.

City officials said they had issued 13 violations to the site in the past 27 months, a normal amount for a project of that size. Inspectors examined the crane Friday and found nothing wrong with it.

City Building Department records show that a caller told officials on March 4 that the upper portions of the crane appeared to lack the proper number of safety ties attaching it to the building. A city inspector visited the site and determined on March 6 that no violation was warranted.

The collapse comes amid a building boom in New York City and follows a spate of construction accidents in recent months, including a few involving cranes. In 2006, a 13-foot piece of a crane mast that was being dismantled fell into the street and crushed a taxi cab.

Last month at a Donald Trump hotel-condominium tower, a worker plummeted 40 stories to his death when a concrete form gave way. A month before that, a crane's nylon sling broke away and dropped seven tons of steel onto a construction trailer across from ground zero, injuring an architect.

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Associated Press writers Pat Rizzo and Verena Dobnik contributed to this report.

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