What caused Seattle crane to collapse? Experts say it’s a common practice

Climbing up and down the 20-story tower, crews worked to take apart the crane soaring above the city’s skyline. Each massive, 20-foot piece of the tower was fastened to sections above and below it with eight bolts. Up and down the tower, workers took out six of those eight bolts, and loosened the other two, preparing the crane to be dismantled.

But when the wind picked up, the crane, weakened without the bolts, came crashing down, killing the two workers still on the tower.

That disaster happened in 2012, near Dallas.

The investigation into last month’s crane collapse that killed four people in South Lake Union is ongoing, and the Washington State Department of Labor and Industry (L&I) has been tight-lipped about potential causes. But the possibility that tower bolts or pins were removed early, while the crane was being dismantled in gusty but not exceptional winds, is sure to be a focal point for investigators.

Several crane experts, after closely examining photos and videos of the crash, said they believe pins were removed early. And, they say, it’s a practice that has become common in the industry — a way to save time during disassembly — despite the safety risks they say it brings.

Photos show the tower generally separated in alternating sections: Two sections appear bolted together, followed by a break, followed by two more sections bolted together, followed by a break, etc.

And dashcam video of the falling tower shows the cab and top two sections of the crane flying off, seemingly unattached, when it hits the building below.

“The cab just flies off, it just shoots off like a missile and then the two sections that follow the cab, shoots off like a missile,” said Terry McGettigan, a tower-crane operator, inspector and safety consultant with more than 40 years of experience. “Every two sections are together. That’s because the pins are still in the other two sections.”

The crane experts stressed that they have not been on the scene of the collapse and based their conclusions from photos and video.

The following video shows the fatal April 27, 2019, crane collapse from a dashboard camera and contains explicit language.

“It’s blatantly obvious they removed the pins,” McGettigan said. “The crane would have never tipped over if they wouldn’t have removed the pins. It would have taken hundreds of miles per hour of wind to push that crane over, it’s so stout. It would have never in a million years tipped over if they hadn’t removed the pins.”

“To me, it’s more than obvious it was a shortcut and four people paid their lives because of it,” said Greg Teslia, president of Crane Safety & Inspections, an inspection company based near Miami. “To save a couple hours, that’s the only reason.”

Ironworkers Andrew Yoder, 31, and Travis Corbet, 33, and two passers-by on Mercer Street — Sarah Wong, 19, a Seattle Pacific University student, and Alan Justad, 71, a former City of Seattle employee — were killed in the crane collapse.

L&I is investigating at least five companies potentially involved in the April 27 collapse.

“We do not provide specifics of investigations until they are completed,”said Tim Church, an L&I spokesman.

David Kwass, a plaintiff’s attorney who specializes in crane and construction accidents, stressed that with at least five contractors and subcontractors on the job, it’s impossible for an outside observer to know who may have ordered or directed early pin removal, if indeed they were removed early.

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