Structural failure may be the reason three ironworkers died July 14 when one of the world's largest cranes crashed into a stadium being constructed for the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team.
A center pin apparently came apart at the base of the Lampson Transi-Lift 1500 Series crane, known as "Big Blue," as it was preparing to lower into place a 400-ton piece of the stadium's roof, said Pat Knight, an attorney for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America Inc., the contractor in charge of the roof installation. Witnesses reported hearing two loud snapping sounds.
"They were braking and were ready to bring the roof piece down into position when it started back (in the wrong direction)," Knight said July 29 in a phone interview. "Some accounts of workers at the base have the center pin lock ring flying up in the air, followed a couple of seconds later by the center pin shooting out."
The crane, at 567 feet tall and with a lifting capacity of 1,500 tons, tipped before falling. "It appears that the crane's rigging held fine, the flight went smooth, and it was in position," Knight said, adding the roof piece had been up in the air for 4-1/2 to 5 hours when the accident happened. That time was used to lift the roof piece off the ground, move it 200 to 300 yards and raise it up, over and into the stadium's bowl.
Jerome Starr, 52, of Milwaukee; Jeffrey Wischer, 40, of Waukesha, Wis.; and William DeGrave, 39, of Kimberly, Wis.; were in a basket hanging from another crane inside the bowl of the stadium when the crane fell and struck the basket, killing all three. The men, who were wearing safety harnesses and carrying two-way radios, were waiting to begin the process of attaching the roof piece hoisted by Big Blue, which was outside the stadium. Its main operator, Fred Flowers, 64, of Houston, was among five others with minor injuries. Flowers broke his hips and shoulder after he jumped or fell at least 20 feet from the crane's cab.
Ironically, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) personnel witnessed the accident because they were in the third day of a comprehensive, scheduled site inspection concerning fall protection. The agency happened to be videotaping the lift July 14, said George Yoksas, director of OSHA's Milwaukee office. He would not disclose why the agency was recording the lift.
Previously, OSHA conducted meetings with stadium construction companies to make sure no one would be working under the crane during lifts, said Jim Dollins, assistant area director for OSHA's Milwaukee office. "Having nobody under the load definitely saved a lot of lives," Dollins said.
Since the accident, concern has focused on moving hundreds of tons of wrecked crane and damaged roof pieces. In addition to finding a crane big enough to move Big Blue and resume roof lifts, officials are worried about what will happen when workers begin removing pieces of debris, Yoksas said. "There's a lot of wreckage there. Which piece do you remove that causes the others to topple?"
Construction on the stadium has resumed on a limited basis in areas not affected by the accident. Meanwhile, dozens of attorneys, forensic and structural engineers, crane experts and open-records requests are part of the investigation.
Lampson, the crane company, has maintained that Big Blue was structurally sound and not at fault. The official cause will not be disclosed until OSHA releases its investigation, due by February 2000.
The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department, acting as the investigative agent for the county district attorney's (DA) office, which is handling the primary investigation, indicated that criminal charges are unlikely. The DA could review the OSHA report and make a final decision on filing charges.