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Construction Cranes, What a Thrill!

It was a really quiet and dark night when I stepped onto the ball and hook on the massive crane that would be delivering concrete mix for the spillway intake for the dam we were building. The spillway intake chamber was 400 feet in the ground and I had already been down there on a previous night to watch as the wooden forms and rebar cages were being put into place under the bright lights. Tonight, I was about to have the ride of my life, one that the safety engineer would frown upon, but which would make a life memory for me.

The crane operator, I’ll call him Pete, was a massive man and was a master at his work for one of the major construction firms that today does major construction jobs around the globe. The other guys on the site had told stories about Pete that made him a legendary figure. He was able to drop a load almost 400 feet down the hole and stop it 18 inches from the floor with ease. Several of the other guys had taken the ride before, but not me. I was 19 and was taking a break from architectural school to make enough cash to go back on my 8-year plus journey to an architectural degree.

Tonight the guys had persuaded me to “take the ride” and I had steeled myself for it. I knew that they were waiting to laugh at me, the rookie, when I got to the bottom of the hole. “Hold on tight!” the foreman screamed as I saw Pete reach out to release the brake holding the cable. The next few seconds seemed to pass on two levels of time. First, as I dropped the equivalent of a 40 story building into the intake hole, slow motion. Second, super fast motion as the adrenaline jetted through my body and brain. The bottom dropped out and I literally fell 400 feet to the floor below.

Pete lived up to his reputation as a master crane operator and stopped me 18 inches above the deck with very little sway. The old timers laughed as I zoomed into the lights and screeched to a stop.

The experience was amazing and the thrill made me want to try it again, but my sweaty hands and wobbly legs told me not to be so foolish again. What a thrill for me. Doing what Tommy Gambardella and his colleagues do in New York City makes me cringe a bit.

The recent article Crane Operators Are Sky High Stars in NY Construction Boom is about Tommy Gambardella, "a master of New York's construction universe.” His role as a tower crane operator in New York City reminded me of my own experiences. Gambardella lives his days in the air 50 stories high about the Manhattan skyline sitting in a crane bubble moving loads of materials from trucks or lay-down areas to the construction floor of a massive condominium project. He and his fellow Crane Masters use massive cranes in a way that surgeons use calipers. Both hold life and death in their hands.

Hopefully you will get a sense of the thrill of sitting in the crane master’s seat as you read the article and think about the thrill of falling through the night like I did.

Photo courtesy AP Photo/Verena Dobnik.