Failure to follow safety guidelines led to Seattle crane collapse that killed 4, state investigation finds

Damage to a Google Cloud building in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood is seen in April after a crane collapsed at the construction site. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The crane collapse that killed four people in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood in April occurred because three companies failed to follow critical safety procedures for dismantling the crane according to the findings of an investigation by the Washington State Department of Labor Industries.

At a news conference on Thursday, officials said the companies did not follow procedures laid out by the manufacturer when beginning to take apart the crane, including the premature removal of nearly all of the pins and sleeves that helped hold the crane together. According to the agency, with the pins removed, “the tower was significantly weakened, making it susceptible to the 45-plus mph wind gust that toppled it.”

The accident in Seattle’s booming technology hub occurred on April 27 as construction was progressing on Google’s new campus along Mercer Street. Sections of the heavy crane crushed the roof and facade of a Google Cloud building and fell into the street below, landing on vehicles near the corner of Mercer and Fairview Avenue.

The collapse killed ironworkers Andrew Yoder, 31, of North Bend, Wash., and Travis Corbet, 33, of Oregon City, Ore. Both were former U.S. Marines.

In cars hit by falling debris, Sarah Wong, 19, a freshman at Seattle Pacific University, and Alan Justad, 71, a longtime City of Seattle employee, were killed. Justad, who retired in 2014, was the former Deputy Director of the Department of Planning and Development.

Four others were injured. Images and videos tweeted and broadcast on television at the time of the accident captured the devastating scene.

The tower crane is shown after collapse, with pins removed before they were supposed to be. (Photo via LI)
The crane is shown lying atop the Google building rooftop after collapse. (Photo via LI)

L I investigated five companies over the course of six months, and ultimately fined three a total of $107,200 for multiple violations.

  • Morrow Equipment LLC owned the tower crane and was cited for one willful serious violation for not following the crane manufacturer’s procedures — it approved the removal of the pins, which directly contributed to the collapse. In a willful violation, an employer either knowingly ignored a legal requirement or was indifferent to employee safety. Morrow was fined $70,000.
  • GLY Construction was cited for three serious violations, including not having a qualified supervisor and other personnel on site at all times during the disassembly operations; not ensuring the manufacturer’s procedures were followed; and not accounting for weather conditions. GLY was fined $25,200.
  • Northwest Tower Crane Services was cited for three serious violations, including not following the manufacturer’s procedures, not ensuring workers understood their assigned duties, and inadequate training of workers. They were fined $12,000.

Two other companies, Seaburg Construction and Omega Rigging and Machinery, were not cited for any violations. The fined employers have 15 business days to appeal the citations.

GLY said in a statement at the time of the accident that it was “deeply saddened and heartbroken by what happened at our job site,” adding that the company and its sub-contractors would be cooperating fully with investigators and local authorities.

L I Crane Program Manager Brian Haight discusses the proper disassembly of a tower crane at a news conference on Thursday. (Facebook screen grab)

L I Crane Program Manager Brian Haight said Thursday that the removal of as many as 50 pins from the tower before a mobile crane could be attached to any components of the structure was likely done in an effort to make the disassembly go faster.

“It’s not acceptable to remove any pins until the mobile crane is attached,” Haight said, adding that when the wind gust hit the tower, it caused too much stress on the components of the crane.

While the wind was a key factor in the collapse, Haight said the investigation and industry chatter has revealed that the lack of safety measures has been happening on other tower crane sites. The removal of the pins during disassembly is “not necessarily standard practice,” Haight said, but it has been happening “in more than just this instance.”

The agency said it has taken steps to increase crane safety and prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. LI’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) issued a hazard alert stressing proper procedures for assembling and dismantling tower cranes. Crane companies must follow manufacturers’ procedures, the agency stressed, and pins and other connectors should only be removed for the individual crane segment that is being lifted.

DOSH has also asked companies to report when they are assembling or disassembling tower cranes.

L I Crane Program Manager Brian Haight holds a pin like those removed from the tower crane that collapsed. (Facebook screen grab)

“Tower cranes are safe, if manufacturer procedures are followed during assembly and disassembly, and our rules are followed,” said L I Assistant Director Anne Soiza. “Employers and contractors are responsible for workplace safety and health. We can’t be everywhere.”

Google officially opened the first portion of its new five-building campus in SLU, just across the street from Amazon’s massive presence in the neighborhood, on Oct. 3. The tech giant added 600,000 square feet of real estate to its Seattle-area footprint. The offices will employ teams working on projects such as Google Cloud, Android, Maps and Chrome. The second phase of the campus will open Oct. 21.

The South Lake Union campus was designed by Vulcan and will feature ground-level retail and housing units in addition to the offices.

Seattle cranes
Cranes dot the South Lake Union neighborhood last year, with the Amazon HQ towers visible at top right. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Seattle has long been a leader when compared to other U.S. cities for the number of cranes dotting its skyline. Growth driven in part by the region’s tech industry has contributed to the ubiquitous site — and the often-heard moniker “Crane City.”

Tech and construction workers and others in South Lake Union offered somber reaction just after the accident back in April. To some, the presence of so many cranes is part of living and working in the growing city.

“There’s cranes are everywhere and they make you a little nervous to see them up that high,” said Colin Hall, a scientist at Novo Nordisk, across the street from Google. “This is a new city for Seattle, seeing it all spring up like this. Cranes are part of that.”

Watch the L I news conference at this Facebook link.

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