New York Construction Site Crane Accident Spurs Questions

Sad news this weekend from New York–on Saturday, a tragic construction site accident has claimed at least four lives, possibly more.

And now everybody is asking: What happened?

Newsday has a very informative graphic reflecting how the damage was caused. This morning, the New York Times reported that a large piece of steel meant to secure the crane to the building came loose and fell on top of second support nine stories below, which knocked it loose and sent the crane flying down over a two-block radius.

It was no small crane: Measuring 22 stories high, the crane caused a considerable amount of damage on its way down. A townhouse was demolished; 24 people were injured.

But many of the details are still unclear, and Newsday is reporting that much of the speculation at this point revolves around a city inspection of the crane that fell the day before the accident.

The crane passed the inspection–but the site had 38 complaints in the past 27 months, which prompted the city to issue 14 violations, according to Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster.

We do know that the day the crane fell, workers had added to its height; called “jumping” or “climbing” the crane. According to the Times, the investigation is also focusing on whether or not the crane’s supports were strong enough to hold it.

The crane’s fall was a terrible accident–mind you, in a neighborhood that last year also saw a building get severely damaged when pitcher Corey Lidel flew his plane into a high rise–but the question on everyone’s mind today is, could it have been prevented?

Construction-related injuries are on the rise in New York City, according to the Buildings Department: In 2007, there were 128, compared to 116 in 2006.

Construction permits for new buildings or major renovations issued by the Buildings Department also have risen–23.3 percent over the past five years, from 70,515 in 2002 to 86,915 in 2007.

We all agree that safe work sites are absolutely imperative. No one is questioning that. And since the city inspected and approved the site the day before the crane was added to, it’s entirely possibly things were safe and secure at that point–right up until the crane was lengthened. In which case, the city did its job.

And maybe the construction crew did, too. Materials could be defective; weather conditions could be extraordinary; things can happen.

Or maybe–just maybe–is the increase in building permits indicative of a growing trend that we’re moving more quickly–maybe too quickly–to approve sites and plans, at the sacrifice of safety?  New York is one of the few markets in the country in which commercial and residential building hasn’t slowed considerably. Is there something to be learned here?

Or was the crane disaster a fluke accident–completely unpreventable and impossible to predict? What do you think?