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Experts: Early Removal Of Crane Pins Likely Caused Crane Collapse, Lawsuits Expected

Two weeks have passed since a crane collapsed onto Mercer Street, killing four people. Since then, there is a question of whether the city of Seattle will implement any new crane-related regulations that ensure the safety of bystanders and construction workers. As of January, there were 59 cranes hovering over Seattle, all of which must be disassembled at some point. 

Experts: Early Removal Of Crane Pins Likely Caused Crane Collapse, Lawsuits Expected
Seattle is dense with cranes as commercial real estate continues to soar.

Ironworkers Travis Corbet, a U.S. Marine and resident of Portland, and Marine Corps Reservist Andrew Yoder of North Bend, died in the accident. When the crane fell to the street below, it also killed 19-year-old Sarah Wong and 71-year-old Alan Justad, who were in separate cars.

Though the formal investigation by the Washington Department of Labor and Industry will take months to complete, national experts said the crane likely collapsed due to premature pulling of the pins during disassembly, which would be contrary to the manufacturer’s instructions.

“It appears as if the [workers] disassembling the crane may have got ahead of themselves and started to remove the pins all the way down the mast,” Colorado Crane Operator School Director of Operations Craig Hautamaki said in an email. “In doing so, with the additional hazard of the wind, it appears that may have caused the tower crane to fall over.”

Hautamaki said this would be due to either lack of training or an intentional shortcut that would save time and require fewer workers.

Experts: Early Removal Of Crane Pins Likely Caused Crane Collapse, Lawsuits Expected
This crane, in South Lake Union, is just blocks away from the one that collapsed on Mercer Street.

Current operating procedure is for the Seattle Department of Transportation to rely on the construction companies to request street closures, but that means it trusts the contractors will make decisions based on safety, rather than speed. The city of Seattle did not respond to requests for comment.

Construction Risk Management’s Timothy Galarnyk said it is absolutely critical that the manufacturer's instructions be followed.

“Cranes must be disassembled strictly under the manufacturer’s instructions,” said Galarnyk, who is based in Minnesota. “They have to be. Shortcuts will eventually fail. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. If a company knew of the practice of disassembling a crane without following the manufacturer’s instructions, it should be up to its neck in trouble.” 

Both experts recommend contractors have pre-assembly and disassembly meetings to go over the steps. In addition, there should be an assembly/disassembly director on-site who is overseeing the process. It has not yet been reported whether meetings took place before the disassembly process began in this case. 

Liebherr crane masts, like the one involved in the accident, have 18-inch-long connection pieces that are secured by two torqued metal pins on each corner, or eight per segment, according to a report by Engineering News Record. Manufacturers state that pins should not be de-torqued and removed until a supporting crane is ready to pick up each section. However, crane disassemblers have become lax about this process, ENR reports. Shortcuts speed up the process and reduce the number of workers needed for the process. 

There are five companies currently under investigation: Bellevue-based GLY, general contractor; Northwest Tower and Crane; Omega Morgan, which requested street closures of portions of Valley Street and Boren Avenue North on Saturday and Sunday; Seaburg Construction, which employed the tower crane operator; and Salem-based Morrow Equipment Co.

Experts: Early Removal Of Crane Pins Likely Caused Crane Collapse, Lawsuits Expected
This crane, in Seattle's Central Business District, is one of dozens around the city.

Morrow Equipment Co., owner of the crane in the Mercer incident, is also one of the companies that is being sued for a 2016 incident that caused worker injuries when a construction elevator suddenly dropped 30 feet due to windy conditions, according to a report by MyNorthwest

The lawsuit in the elevator case, filed on March 20, 2019, states the companies failed to properly hire, train and/or supervise employees with due care and good judgement and cites the failure to stop operations in adverse weather. The lawsuit states that one of the plaintiffs was told to continue to operate the elevator even though the supervisor knew that the wind speed made it unsafe.

The family of Justad, a retired city of Seattle employee and one of the two bystanders killed in the crane accident, has already announced plans to sue.

Legislation passed just one day before the crane collapse means the family of 19-year-old Wong could choose to sue for wrongful death. Wong was a freshman attending Seattle Pacific University. Senate Bill 5163, which was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on April 26, states that parents of adult children can hold parties accountable for wrongful deaths.

This legislation was championed, in part, by Rhonda Ellis, who lost her son Josh Ellis, his wife, Vanessa, and their son, Hudson, when a piece of concrete fell off a Bonney Lake overpass onto their car on April 13, 2015, during construction. 

“Every parent understands that our children are our life’s work. We don’t stop loving them when they turn 18. We cherish them forever,” Ellis said in a statement. “We know this law will help protect future families from the agony we have suffered and ensure all parents have equal, legal rights.”

Until now, parents of adult children have had no recourse to hold companies responsible for negligence due to a 1909 state law imposed to protect railroads from being sued by the families of Chinese workers killed during railroad construction, according to the Tacoma News Tribune.

“This new law rights a horrible wrong. Washington state will no longer discriminate against families who suffer the ultimate loss,” said Ann Rosato, president of the Washington State Association for Justice.

Many questions remain about the crane collapse, which is now undergoing investigation. Beyond who will be held responsible is the question of whether Seattlites should be concerned about the safety of dozens of cranes transforming the skyline and whether streets be closed during the risky assembly and disassembly process.

Experts: Early Removal Of Crane Pins Likely Caused Crane Collapse, Lawsuits Expected
A crane operating in downtown Seattle

The experts said shutting down the streets is a no-brainer.

“Absolutely all affected streets should be closed during assembly and disassembly,” Galarnyk said. “And that process should only be done during off-peak hours as to not cause unnecessary disruption for people.”

Typically, closing streets during this process is standard operating procedure, Hautamaki said.

“Although, if the tower crane is disassembled per manufacturers’ recommendation, oftentimes it would be unnecessary to close other surrounding streets as there would not be any additional hazards if done and planned for correctly.”