Ohio Crane Collapse Kills Four, Investigation Begins

Mon March 01, 2004 - Midwest Edition

Toledo, OH (AP) Ironworkers who have been building an interstate bridge had few complaints about safety at the site, union and transportation officials said a day after a crane collapsed and killed three workers Feb. 16. A fourth injured worker died Feb. 18.

Construction of a new interstate bridge had been safe with only a few minor accidents until the collapse, state highway officials and ironworkers said Feb.17.

Among the workers killed were members of the Ironworkers Local 55 in Toledo.

Joe Blaze, the union’s business manager, said he had not heard of any complaints from workers about safety at the project. But he added that bridge building is inherently dangerous.

“Up to this point I’ve been very happy,” he said. “It’s been a very safe site.”

The Ohio Department of Transportation’s assistant director, Richard Martinko, noted that there had been only five injury accidents that forced workers off the job since the project began three years ago.

“To date, this project has been 400 percent safer than the average project,” Martinko said.

The 1,000-ton crane that collapsed was piecing together the roadway on the Interstate 280 bridge. The crane, which stretches above the bridge’s pillars and lifts concrete sections of the roadway into place, was moving forward.

Workers were standing on the pillars and about to set the crane into place when it came crashing down.

Two of the four workers who died were standing on the same pillar. A third worker next to them was unscathed, Blaze said.

“He had to cut the harness to get out,” Blaze said.

Investigators were just beginning to piece together what happened and would not offer any clues.

“We do not know what contributed to it,” said Gordon Proctor, director of the state’s transportation department.

The victims were Robert Lipinski Jr., 44, of Grand Rapids; Mike Phillips, 42, of Toledo; and Mike Moreau, 30, of nearby Lambertville, MI. Arden Clark, 47, had been in critical condition after the accident, and died two days later.

In the days following the accident, four injured workers remained at St. Vincent Medical Center.

“We’re talking about top-notch iron workers,” Blaze said. “They were hand-picked for the project because of their experience.”

Working on the $227-million cable-supported bridge was a point of pride for the ironworkers. Some left other jobs to work on the bridge, which was billed as a “signature bridge” for Toledo.

“This is the saddest day in our company’s history. We lost three men,” Matti Jaekel, president and CEO of suburban St. Louis-based Fru-Con Construction Corp., the primary contractor for the project, said on Feb. 16, before the fourth worker died.

“They are men of great courage. Construction is their life.”

He said a second crane that is nearly identical to the one that collapsed will not be used until investigators find a cause.

The entire bridge project was shut down Feb. 17, but work was expected to resume the next day.

Although the crane was custom-built for the project, the style is used commonly in bridge building, Jaekel said.

“This construction method is very typical for this type of design,” he said.

Fru-Con won the contract to build the bridge after submitting the lowest of four bids. It was its first project working with the state transportation department, Proctor said.

The company had another injury accident last summer when a worker was hit and knocked to the ground by a track that separated from a crane on a bridge project in North Dakota.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigators found no rule violations and did not fine Fru-Con.

The crane that collapsed the afternoon of Feb. 16 narrowly missed toppling onto the busy lanes of I-280, coming to rest between the northbound and southbound lanes.

The transportation department shut down most of I-280, which connects the Ohio Turnpike and Interstate 75 and crosses the Maumee River, just north of downtown Toledo.