Crane Collapse Shifts Memorial Events
by Kevin Matthews
Around 11 o'clock on the morning of Wednesday, September 7, in Washington, D.C., a 400-foot-tall, 500-ton Liebherr crane collapsed in a thunderstorm wind gust at the National Cathedral. The crane had been working on securing the building after recent earthquake damage, in anticipation of 9/11 memorial observances slated to include President Obama this Sunday, September 11.
Setting down a 40-foot I-beam at the top of the cathedral that morning, the crane operator started to swing the crane away from the cathedral as the wind gusted up, according to workers on the site. The crane toppled full-length along South Road, flanking and parallel to the cathedral building, just clipping the historic Herb Cottage. Apparently no one was seriously hurt.
The accident took place in a context of urgency to complete work in time for high-profile national events, conflicting with an extended spate of stormy weather, with thunderstorms for days since Hurricane Irene.
As a result of the crane collapse, Friday and Sunday events commemorating the 9/11 disasters have been moved from the National Cathedral to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, also in Washington, D.C.
Right around the time the crane collapsed on the cathedral hill, the transmission tower for NPR radio station WAMU (88.5 FM) was struck by lightning, taking the station off the air for about 20 minutes.
Jim Dadey, a stagehand with Maryland Sound who was working inside the cathedral, setting up for Sunday's events, when the crane fell, said the boom when the crane hit the ground "sounded like a thunderbolt."
The Herb Cottage, on the cathedral grounds near the cathedral, was damaged by the falling crane but remarkably, no other buildings on the dense gothic campus were hit.
A woman on the cathedral grounds Wednesday afternoon described how horrifying it was for her to see the crane disappear from the skyline as she drove toward the landmark there one moment, gone the next.
"No one got hurt, not even a squirrel," she said. "It was the grace of God."
That afternoon, a steel I-beam was visible cantilevering atop the cathedral's 301-foot central tower, where the crane had set it down moments before toppling.
Damage to the cathedral's corner spires from the magnitude-5.8 earthquake that shook the U.S. capital on August 23, 2011, was also visible.
The National Cathedral was built, mainly of Indiana limestone, over a period of 83 years from 1907 to 1990, using traditional stone masonry techniques, similar to the great cathedrals of Europe. The cathedral is considered the most recent of the great gothic cathedrals worldwide. The building architects were George Frederick Bodley (1907), Henry Vaughan (1907-1917), Frohman, Robb & Little (1921-1944), and Philip H. Frohman (1944-1972).
The large hydraulic truck crane, equipped with a long lattice jib and operated by Crane Service Company of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, scattered massive counterweights when it upended. It came to rest with the crane operator cab sideways near the ground, and the truck bed jutting upwards, with the truck cab high in the air.
This is a large crane accident that came incredibly close to being so much worse in many ways, an extremely narrow miss.
The "Concert for Hope" planned for the National Cathedral on September 11, 2011, has been moved to the Kennedy Center. President Obama is still scheduled to speak at the 9/11 memorial event.
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Kevin Matthews is Editor in Chief of ArchitectureWeek. More by Kevin Matthews