September 2, 2006 in City

Crane job takes nerves of steel

Rebecca Nappi The Spokesman-Review
 
The Spokesman-Review photo

The crane throws a shadow on the new control tower at Spokane International Airport.
(Full-size photo)

The yellow construction crane at Spokane International Airport stretches 330 feet into the air. To get to the top, you climb rung after rung on the crane’s ladder.

George Elder, crane operator, tells me the rules of the climb: Don’t panic. Don’t freeze. One step at a time.

Every workday since April 2005, George has climbed the crane. He will continue to climb it for a month more while the new air traffic control tower, adjacent to the crane, is completed.

George is 53. He stands 6 feet tall. He weighs 212 pounds. He can eat anything he wants and not pack on a pound.

In honor of Labor Day, I spend a morning with George. I first met him in June when I climbed to the top of the under-construction tower next to the crane. But that was a snap, because there were interior stairs all the way up.

George and I wear hard hats, safety glasses, steel-toed boots. Picture a skinny house ladder. And then picture 28 stories worth of those skinny ladders, encircled by steel-ribbed cages, reaching up into the sky. That is the climb we face.

We begin. George tells me that he grew up in the San Francisco area and soon after high school he got a job at a steel shipyard, where he learned to run cranes.

He preferred those to heavy equipment. “I wanted to be up there,” he says. “I like to be warm and dry.”

He has worked big cranes throughout the Northwest. He’s a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 370. Crane operators are in great demand because of the country’s building boom, and they can earn between $20 and $40 an hour, depending on the city and the job.

Halfway up the crane, I look down. The construction workers seem as tiny as “Bob the Builder” characters. I feel panic rising inside me. Only thin rungs of steel separate me from eternity. George advises: “Don’t look up or down. Keep going.”

I invoke help from the strongest women I’ve known, now deceased. Help me, Sister Peter Claver. Help me, Donna Hanson. “How am I doing?” I ask George this question each time we pause at the platforms between the ladders. “Great,” he says. It’s all a confidence game.

We reach the crane’s cab, George’s “office.” It reminds me of an amusement ride capsule. I step in. My knees shake. It has taken me 45 minutes to climb here. George can climb it in 12 minutes, tops.

He sits in his chair and controls the crane’s boom and hook with the levers and buttons on the arms of the chair. The men below radio him, requesting that he lift a large box of material from the ground to the tower’s walkway at the top. This is called “flying.”

George handles the crane’s boom and hook with the grace of a fly fisherman. The hook can hold up to 25,250 pounds. He has flown giant concrete buckets, 8-foot-high windows and human beings in baskets. Every week, he flies the portable toilet down from the tower’s roof for emptying.

You can see forever from up here. George loves the view and the solitude. He has a tiny TV on which he monitors the weather. He remembers the day the wind teased his agility as he climbed quickly down the crane, escaping the predicted 70 mph winds.

Alas, I must leave George’s work world and return to my own. Nouns and verbs need to be flown from my brain to the computer screen.

The walk down – Help me again, Sister and Donna – takes 30 minutes. George can do it in five minutes, tops. The best part of his job, he says, is driving past completed structures and feeling proud he worked on them.

I will never see a construction crane with the same eyes again. Thanks George, and happy Labor Day.

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