Tower Crane Operator Has Quite a View

Thu December 21, 2006 - Southeast Edition

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) Lee Carhart knows plenty about climbing the corporate ladder. He does it five days a week — 270 rungs, one rung at a time. Once up. Once down.

For Carhart, it’s all part of getting to and from work “up here in God’s country.”

For the next year, the Guilford County resident will operate the 300-ft. tall tower crane being used to rehab the former Wachovia building downtown.

The 40-year-old eyesore, which has been vacant for 16 years, will be transformed into a $37 million complex of condos, a restaurant and office space called Center Pointe.

Carhart, 48, will have a pigeon’s-eye view of the transformation.

“To me, it’s going to be a very interesting job, watching the whole building change face,” said Carhart, who lives near High Point. “As progress is made, you see it all from up there.”

Carhart spends 10 hours a day inside the crane’s 25-sq.-ft. cab approximately 285 ft. above North Elm Street.

He eats there, lunching on salads and fruit, sipping a sports drink. He relaxes there between lifts, reading his Bible or the newspaper. He relieves himself there, using a gallon jug.

“[Crane operators] plan their schedules,” said Dennis Kenna, president of Heede Southeast, the company that owns the crane and for whom Carhart works. “They don’t eat chili the night before.”

In addition to some inconveniences, Carhart’s job has some perks, like the exercise. The climb takes 10 minutes and when he gets to the top, he pulls a backpack and a bucket up the rigging by hand.

“That’s why you don’t see many fat crane operators,” said Sam Williams, a superintendent of Rentenbach Constructors, the company overseeing the crane operation for developer Roy Carroll. “Then there are all those hours when he is not doing much.”

During those times, he’ll do maintenance on the crane, walk out on the boom to stretch his legs or just enjoy his surroundings.

“How’s the view?” he shouted down the other day to some visitors on the roof. “It’s amazing on a clear day how far you can see.” Far, as in all the way to Pilot Mountain, 54 mi. away.

Carhart’s job comes with certain dangers — fog, wind and lightning; lifting approximately 40,000 lbs. (18,140 kg) of material; lowering loads into spots he can’t see.

But Carhart doesn’t worry. Instead of focusing on what could go wrong, he concentrates on what must go right.

“There’s no fear at all,” he said. “The most important thing is to stay on your toes and constantly think about safety.”

Carhart operates the 170-ton (155 t) crane from a cushioned seat, working even in the rain due to two sets of windshield wipers. Controls on the right armrest turn the machine on and off and operate the hoist. Others on the left make the crane swing left or right and move the trolley and attached hook in and out along the boom.

A computer screen in front of him tells Carhart if he’s about to lift more weight than he should or if the weight is too close to the end of the boom. If that’s the case, the computer will stop the operation.

“I don’t call anything foolproof,” said Rick Adams, a Heede official. “That’s why you have crane operators. He’s the oversight.”

Carhart began working in construction as a teenager and started working on crawler cranes when he served in the Marine Corps. He has worked for Heede on tower cranes about a year.

“You can make a darn good living,” Carhart said, without saying what he makes. “Tower crane operators are pretty much at a premium.”

Some make $100,000 a year or more, Heede officials said. Approximately 2,000 people across the country do what Carhart does.

Carhart’s job will eventually get easier. At some point, he won’t have to climb the ladder because a catwalk will be connected to the building. Then he can ride an elevator to the 15th floor, climb a short ladder to the roof and walk across to the crane.

“The catwalk is nice,” Carhart said, “but I like the climb.”

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