Crane Collapse Casts Pall Over Seattle’s Rapid Growth

By and | April 29, 2019

The crane collapse in the heart of Seattle’s tech hub Saturday ended four lives, cast a pall on the city’s rapid expansion and may lead to tens in millions of dollars of costs for a building that Alphabet Inc.’s Google is set to occupy.

The crash came at around 3:30 p.m. local time Saturday when a tower crane that was being dismantled fell from the top of a nearly completed building in the South Lake Union neighborhood onto a busy arterial leading to Interstate 5, the area’s main highway. The building is part of a new Google campus and was being developed by Vulcan, the real estate business set up by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, who died last fall.

Washington state has among the strictest regulations in the country for operating cranes and the industry has generally had a safe track record. Even so, regulators may look to bolster rules around erecting and dismantling cranes after studying what happened in this tragedy, said Richard Gleason, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and a former state and federal worker-safety inspector.

“Anytime you take the crane down or put it up, man, that’s a really precarious time,” Gleason said.

Two construction workers and two people in cars hit by the crane were killed. Gleason estimates that the accident will likely cost the company north of $50 million. In addition to claims brought by the victims or the families, there may also be costs associated with delays to the construction project, he said.

Seattle is in the middle of a commercial real estate boom and has nearly 60 construction cranes dotting its skyline, the most of any U.S. city. Developers have flocked to the area to build new offices and apartments for a swelling tech workforce.

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries has begun investigating the incident and is looking at Vulcan’s general contractor, GLY, as well as its subcontractors, the Associated Press reported.

After a 2006 tower crane collapse killed a Microsoft lawyer in a Seattle suburb, Washington State enacted tougher restrictions on the structures and their operators. That accident also resulted in suits, which were settled for an undisclosed amount.

One of the epicenters of the building activity is South Lake Union. Inc. build a massive multi-block corporate campus, and later Google and Facebook Inc. chose the area to house their Seattle offshoots. Much of the real estate development was led by Vulcan, which has spent the last two decades building gleaming new apartment buildings, offices and retail space in an area that was once a gritty, light-industrial zone.

Google isn’t scheduled to move in until later this year, according to a Vulcan spokeswoman. The developer said it doesn’t know whether that timeline will change because the extent of the damage isn’t immediately clear. Vulcan didn’t have an early estimate of the costs or disclose insurers that cover the project or its contractor.

GLY also said it’s cooperating with local authorities on the investigations, while Google, which signed the least in 2017, said it’s in communication with Vulcan.

State regulators will take months to investigate what happened, said Gleason, the former worker safety inspector. Still, the accident probably won’t delay other construction projects in the city: Contractors have to book the machinery well in advance and spend upwards of $50,000 a month to operate them at their sites, he said.

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