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August 10, 2023 Admin

Deeper Investigation Will Determine Cause of Manhattan Crane Collapse

Fire and insurance attorney Michael Mezzacappa weighs in on what, “at first blush, does not appear to be a typical crane collapse accident.”

By Michael P. Mezzacappa

The calm on Manhattan’s west side was shattered in the early morning hours of July 26 when a 45-story tall construction crane collapsed onto the streets below.

The crane was working on an under-construction 54-story, mixed-use skyscraper located between 41st and 42nd streets, a few blocks west of Broadway’s ‘Great White Way’ and a few streets north of the Jacob Javits Convention Center.

The crane was holding 16 tons of concrete at the time of the accident, according to city officials. Twelve people were reported as being injured and, on the way down, a part of the crane hit another nearby occupied tower.

Initial reports indicated that a fire started in the cab of the crane due to hydraulic fluid leaking onto a heated metal plate. When incidents like these occur, there is no shortage of whispers and speculation as fingers quickly point to who or what companies could be to blame.

After more than 35 years litigating high profile cases, especially catastrophic New York fires for major corporate defendants and on behalf of underwriters, at first blush, this does not appear to be a typical crane collapse accident.

It also does not initially appear that the rigging of the crane was done in a faulty manner. Instead, this accident appears to have resulted because of a fire that, in turn, caused failure of mechanical systems and devices that normally keep the crane operational and erect.

What was exceptionally-different here from any other crane collapse or accident was that the mechanical section of the crane was on fire 45 flights up.

Video and photos from the scene show that the mechanical section of the crane was heavily ablaze as FDNY companies arrived to tame the flames and the prevent the possible spread of any falling debris that might ignite other surrounding properties or vehicles below. 200 FDNY personnel were on the scene, according to FDNY Deputy Commissioner Joseph W. Pfeifer.

Reportedly, the boom of the crane was fine the days and weeks prior. Instead, it is highly likely that the high temperature within the mechanical section, specifically as result of the flames, caused degradation of the cables and other mechanical systems, compromising their ability to continue controlling crane operation and stability.

As was seen in the World Trade Center terrorist attack, high heat and flames often result in gradually weakening the strength and integrity of any metal—including, in this instance, those devices that control movement and action of a construction crane.

In any metropolitan area, and especially in the City of New York, there are very stringent testing, compliance and permitting protocols for construction sites and the safe operation of cranes. What’s more, there are always fail safes built in.

In a vertical city like New York, towering construction cranes regularly dot our landscape. They are essential to the city’s real estate ecosystem and their safety and operations are highly necessary.

In the end, the investigation of this accident is going to be conducted by multiple agencies, including the FDNY, the New York City Department of Buildings, OSHA and likely other agencies.

From years of experience in dealing with major investigations that involve fires, the forensics and laboratory reports alone can take a year or more in a jurisdiction like New York City.

In the end, it is highly likely that standards established by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations will be used for the determining factors in this incident, to get to the root cause of how the first fuel ignited, which eventually led to the demise of control over the crane and part of its ultimate collapse to the construction site below.

Michael P. Mezzacappa is a partner & general counsel with Coffey Modica LLP. based in New York. He is a trial attorney who represents clients including insurers, property owners and managing agents, manufacturers, construction companies and trucking companies.