Catastrophic Crane Failure: Is Your Department Ready?

ON NOVEMBER 16, 2006, THE BELLEVUE (WA) FIRE Department responded to a multiday incident that challenged its resources. The tower crane at the site of the 20-story 333 Building experienced a catastrophic failure. The building, in its early stages of construction, is part of a rapidly growing downtown area where, at the time of my writing this article, about a dozen tower cranes were engaged in building new high-rises. The area already has numerous high-rises, some as high as 42 stories.

CRANE COLLAPSE

At 1935 hours as the tower crane was finishing its busy workday, the operator was “parking” it for the night. Suddenly, bystanders heard a resounding “crack” that reverberated through the downtown streets. The unnerving sound ominously stirred the evening air. The tower crane began a slow, twisting fall to the south from 210 feet in the air. The operator braced for the worst.


(1) Damage incurred by the Pinnacle Bell Centre apartment building, where the sole fatality occurred. [Photos by Paul Davison, courtesy of the Bellevue (WA) Fire Department.]
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At the base of the crane, workers scrambled to get clear while pedestrians on the surrounding streets and other crane operators in nearby cranes looked in horror toward the towering collapse of metal. The three-story Plaza 305 building, immediately to the south of the worksite, felt the initial brunt of the crane’s impact. The crane’s mast (tower section) tore through the office building’s eastern third, making kindling out of the offices and causing a major collapse of the building’s east end. The crane’s machinery arm (counterweight section) impacted the seven-story Civica Office Commons further to the south. Sixth- and seventh-floor offices were punched open before the hefty counterbalance weights broke free from their mountings, falling with a tremendous crash into the alley below. Within the Civica’s interior, glass and debris were flying everywhere.

The crane continued a grinding slide down the Civica while its boom now swung over and impacted the four-story Pinnacle Bell Centre wood-frame apartment complex across the street. The boom hit this building with such power that it literally tore through the fourth floor; it caused less damage to the other three stories before bending and falling back into the street below. In short order, the unthinkable had just occurred: A 210-foot tower crane had just fallen in the midst of the busy urban center.

THE RESPONSE

While dust was still rolling amid the stunned streets of downtown Bellevue, the first calls for help were pouring into the city’s 911 dispatch center. An initial alarm including Engine 1, Light Force 7, Aid 1, Medic 1, Medical Service Officer 5, and Battalion 1 was dispatched. Reports from witnesses describing multiple buildings with damage and victims trapped in the wreckage were flooding in. Additional units were rapidly added to the response, including a second medic unit, a second truck company, and Bellevue’s Rescue 3 heavy rescue unit. In all, seven engine companies, six truck companies, five rescue companies, three medic units, four aid units, numerous chief officers, and a variety of support and staff vehicles were used at the scene.

First-arriving units faced an imposing scene. Three buildings were lying amid the twisted steel tangle of the fallen crane. There was a potential for numerous civilians to be trapped in the wreckage. Crews faced the danger of possible gas leaks, fire, and secondary collapses. Despite such perils, crews immediately set about the hazardous mission of searching these devastated areas.


(2) Damage to the Plaza 305 and the Civica Commons buildings.
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Battalion 1 Chief Jim Dorney established command. Those in the command post quickly realized that this would be a complicated, long-term incident. In addition to requesting additional engines, trucks, and medic units, a staff recall was initiated to get additional Bellevue chief officers to the scene, including Bellevue’s Deputy Chief of Operations Warren Merritt, Deputy Chief of Support Services Mike Eisner, and Chief of Department Mario H. Treviño. (The Seattle, Kirkland, Redmond, Woodinville, Bothell, North Shore, and Shoreline Fire Departments and Eastside Fire and Rescue ultimately responded.)

When Bellevue’s chief officers arrived on-scene, primary searches were already underway; they were focused on the three damaged buildings. This proved to be a complicated task, given the degree of destruction, the scope of the incident, and the fact that much of the search area appeared unstable. The incident command system was rapidly expanded to support these operations, including the use of branch commanders for the various buildings, logistics to deal with the needs of the incident, bases for standard companies and the Rescue Group (serving as the rallying point of King County Zone 1 technical rescue specialists who had been requested to the scene), a medical group, a technical rescue group, and a rapid intervention team.

All crews and command staff were operating on the 800-megahertz countywide radio system, which operated flawlessly throughout the incident and accommodated also the responding mutual-aid companies. Incident command also requested city structural engineers and a Federal Emergency Management Agency US&R structural engineer from Washington Task Force 1 to assess structural stability.

RESCUE AND RECOVERY OPERATIONS

One of the rescue operations involved the crane operator, who somehow miraculously survived his 210-foot descent and punching through and bouncing off buildings. He was trapped some 15 feet off the ground inside the crane’s operator’s cab. Light Force 7, using a ground ladder, quickly reached the conscious operator, who was safely extricated and had only minor injuries.

Crews searching the Plaza 305 building and the Civica Office Commons were surprised to find no injuries, despite the heavy damage. This was largely because of the time of day-many of the office workers had gone home. Had the buildings been at peak occupancy, it is likely that scores of injuries would have occurred, and possibly even deaths.


(3) In-progress search operations at the heavily damaged Plaza 305.
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We were doubtful about the same good fortune in the Pinnacle building, however. The condominium complex housed many residents who were now home for the evening. Crews began searching and evacuating the building’s west end. The search of the upper two floors revealed heavy damage and flowing water from domestic and sprinkler lines the crane’s boom had severed. Had that sprinkler system been needed to suppress fire, its effect would have been diminished. The crew of Light Force 7 assessed the unstable environs of the fourth-floor apartment, where the impact of the crane’s jib (working arm) literally had ripped through the living area like a giant’s fist. Despite the unstable nature of the area, the presence of a wallet and keys near the front door convinced the crew of the probability that an occupant was present. With this suspicion in mind, the crew worked farther out onto the unstable floor, searching through a tangle of twisted debris. The discovery of a shoe led to the body of a male victim; the debris was cleared from his body. Tragically, his injuries were clearly fatal, and no resuscitation effort was attempted.

The remaining occupants of all three buildings were evacuated without further incident. Evacuees were questioned about the possibility of known missing civilians in the buildings. Police ran the license plates of vehicles in the collapse areas so that owners could be accounted for. The initial confusion eventually gave way to the realization that a vast majority of workers and residents were accounted for and, amazingly, uninjured. Still, we could not be sure until US&R crews searched the heavy debris.

We requested Seattle Fire Department Heavy Rescue Unit (Ladder 7, Rescue 14), many of whose members are part of Washington US&R Task Force 1, and heavy portable cranes, an excavator, and search dogs. This detailed search was carried out in two phases. In the first phase, US&R technicians and the search dogs worked in close proximity to the most heavily damaged areas. Except for the location of the deceased individual, there was no evidence of additional trapped victims. Seattle Fire’s heavy rescue personnel worked through incident command and in close coordination with the efforts the initial companies had already taken.

A planning meeting among the Bellevue Fire Department, US&R representatives, city structural engineers, and crane personnel was held to determine how to best proceed with search operations in the Plaza 305 building. Crane personnel forcibly and aggressively secured the unstable crane superstructure to the side of the Civica building using cables, literally using the stability of the Civica building to secure the crane.

The second phase of the search effort was conducted early the next morning. Additional heavy-lift, portable cranes and an excavator were used to remove the heavy debris, especially in the large, highly compressed debris/collapse area on the east end of the Plaza 305 building. Crews stayed through the night and throughout the following day; US&R technical rescue specialists checked void spaces with probes before directing the cranes and excavator to remove heavy debris. Fortunately, no additional victims were found.

The incident was challenging for the Bellevue Fire Department, but it turned out to be fairly “static.” Once the fire department arrived on-scene, anything that was falling had fallen and, despite the unstable appearance of the structures, no additional collapses occurred. In addition, despite the potential for gas leaks and electrical damage, fire was not an issue. As far as victims went, the only fatality was clearly dead; the injuries were very minor. Had the crane fallen to the north, instead of to the south, where it had fallen, it would have affected a high-rise building. Had it fallen to the east, much more of the crane would have hit the heavily occupied condominium complex and certainly would have caused more extensive injury-and even death.

The Red Cross was brought in to offer assistance to displaced residents, many of whom were put up in downtown hotels. The cause of the collapse remains under investigation; however, in the days following this collapse, a second tower crane in downtown Bellevue was found to have cracks in the base and was disassembled for repair.

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

  • Incident command system (ICS). Implementing the incident command system on the arrival of the first apparatus is a necessity in all incidents, especially major ones such as this. You must avoid the temptation to have all resources feed directly into the collapse zone. A full range of ICS positions were filled as the scope of the incident was recognized. Planning and logistical concerns were anticipated and met throughout the incident. Use of branch directors proved beneficial, even though all of the affected structures and work areas were within sight of one another and in view of the incident commander. Creating a separate staging area for the fire department’s heavy rescue component proved beneficial, as its task became a specialized element within the overall scope of operations.
  • Specialized resources. The use of specialized resources proved necessary. They included fire department heavy rescue personnel, search dogs, and nonfire agency resources such as structural engineers and heavy equipment operators. In particular, coordinating rescue operations with the search dogs proved vital. Fortunately, all victims (living and deceased) were located before the search dogs arrived at the scene, but their participation was of great benefit, given the potential for additional victims. Rapid use of the Bellevue Police Department proved effective in cordoning off the affected area and aiding in evacuation. As was noted earlier in the article, civilian heavy equipment personnel secured the crane. Their method was unique in that they literally cabled the unstable crane to the Civica building against which it had fallen. This plan, carefully coordinated with incident command, abated further shifting/settling of the crane. Incident command wisely initiated planning meetings with all of the players, including the civilian crane workers and structural engineers. This kept all aspects of the operation carefully coordinated and as safe as could reasonably be expected under the conditions.
  • Working with the media. Not surprisingly, the news media took a major interest in this high-profile incident. The Bellevue Fire Department organized a press conference the following day; every major news agency in the area attended. The fire department ensured that all of the major players involved in this incident were present at the press conference, including the Department of Labor and Industries (LI). As public attention focused on “who was responsible for inspecting these cranes,” LI and I were able to clarify that the contractors have this responsibility. Concern regarding these “inspection practices” has gained the attention of the State Legislature. It is possible we may see new codes relative to increasing tower crane safety arise from this incident.

PATRICK NIPERT, a 21-year veteran of the fire service, is a firefighter/paramedic for the Bellevue (WA) Fire Department. He is an instructor on fire and EMS topics.

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