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Published: Sunday, 2/13/2005

An inch from completing task, strange noise signaled trouble

BY JOE MAHR AND
GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

It was the most dangerous step of the day.

Perched on a concrete pier 60 feet above I-280, Mike Moreau and Mike Phillips guided the front of the crane's dangling underbridge into place.

Sitting atop the underbridge, about 100 feet away, Robert Lipinski, Jr., and Arden Clark watched the chains of a special trolley that moved the underbridge into place.

They were an inch away.

Then came the collapse.

Three of the ironworkers died instantly. A fourth died two days later. And the rest of their crew would be injured or stunned.

The Ohio Department of Transportation would collect the accounts of 21 workers near the crane that day.

The Blade obtained those statements and conducted interviews with several people familiar with the collapse, to piece together what happened that bitterly cold Monday.

The crew of the crane, known as LG2, had spent the morning slowly moving its underbridge as far out as it needed to go to clear the middle pier. They had extended the underbridge's rear leg brace to attach to the side of that middle pier. And, after a lunch break, they had begun easing the underbridge backward to set it in place.

Several ironworkers told The Blade it was the most dangerous part of the launch because much of the crane's weight was left to dangle ahead of the main truss until the underbridge could be tied down.

Mr. Moreau and Mr. Phillips were waiting to anchor the underbridge's front legs. Standing on the next pier south, ironworkers Joel Kolling and Roger Henneman were watching the underbridge's rear legs, while Mr. Lipinski and Mr. Clark sat atop the underbridge itself.

Ironworker Josh Collins stood on a catwalk just below Mr. Kolling and Mr. Henneman. And Al Hedge, the crane operator, stood on the main truss behind the front leg, controlling the slow reverse of the underbridge.

Then came a strange noise.

Mr. Kolling, the foreman, described it to investigators as "more of a snapping-type noise or metallic noise."

Mr. Kolling told the crane operator to stop. Then, the foreman said he untied his safety harness "out of a bad habit," walked around the pier, and investigated the sound.

Mr. Henneman told investigators that he heard a sound like a chain snapping, and a few seconds after that, the crane fell.

Gaspare "Gomez" Pirrone, who operated LG2's sister crane, told investigators that he saw the front of LG2's underbridge fall first.

But most workers in the vicinity heard the collapse before they saw it. One described it as a shotgun blast. Another said it sounded like a dumpster falling off a truck and rolling down the highway.

Mr. Moreau, Mr. Phillips, and Mr. Lipinski were pronounced dead at the scene. Mr. Clark was rushed to the hospital and died two days later.

Mr. Hedge, the crane operator, was injured as he rode the main truss to the ground. Mark Buck, operating another crane below LG2, broke a foot when he jumped to the ground after hearing the collapse and seeing the bigger crane move.

Mr. Collins suffered vertebrae injuries as he plummeted to the ground with the catwalk on which he had been standing.

And, on top of that middle pier, Mr. Henneman, with his safety harness still attached to the truss, would spin around to see the crane falling and be slammed to the pier, the harness cable breaking his leg.

"He felt his chest burning," according to his paraphrased statement to investigators. "[A cable] pinned him down as if it were trying to pull him into the hole."

A few feet away, Mr. Kolling watched the crane fall around him. Debris knocked his hard hat off his head. He forgot he'd untied his safety harness from the crane, so in a split-second he watched the crane fall and he assumed he'd be next. "I thought, 'This is it. I'm getting pulled in,'‚óŹ" he told The Blade.

Then, he realized his "bad habit" had saved him. Just then, Mr. Henneman had a bout of luck too.

His safety cable snapped, leaving him safely on the swaying pier instead of pulling him to the ground. To ensure he couldn't be dragged down anyway, Mr. Kolling cut Mr. Henneman's safety harness off.

But, as the helicopters from TV stations soon buzzed around the site, the pair would sit up there dazed and wondering just what had happened to doom some of their crew.

Contact Joe Mahr at: jmahr@theblade.com or 419-724-6180.



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