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Tuesday, August 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

The tallest man in Spokane: Talking shop with the operator of downtown’s tower crane

Wally Forbush can describe his job in two words. The View.

For long stretches of peaceful silence, or as his stereo plays classic country or blues, Forbush stares out windows all around him to views of the Spokane Falls, the Monroe Street Bridge and everywhere else only eagles eye. With the window open, a cool breeze just about makes Forbush’s position the most enviable in Spokane.

But then, with the crackle of his radio, word comes from the workers below, and Forbush turns on, scanning his monitors, flying through quick calculations in his head, reading the wind that twists his perch like a redwood in a gust.

From his hand at the controls, through steel and cable, up to 70,000 pounds of welded rebar or large panels of falsework glide through the air above 15 or so of his coworkers.

Forbush, 56, is a tower crane operator, and if you’ve been downtown in the past month, you’ve probably seen him at work. As the sole tower crane operator at Garco Construction, Forbush has been sitting pretty for the past month between the library and the Spokane Falls, 140 feet above what will eventually be a 2.2 million gallon tank that will collect and store combined sewage and stormwater, the city’s largest in its effort to stop untreated sewage from entering the river.

With a full, white handlebar mustache and a hardhat gripped tight to his shaved head, Forbush talks about his rig with a winsome, unrestrained joy. Who knew construction workers could be so merry.

Maybe that’s because he’s the only guy around who can wield a machine that’s rarely seen around town.

Unlike Seattle, which regularly tops the list for American cities with the most tower cranes, which differ from other cranes due to their size, T-shape and requirement of a concrete foundation. In 2015, Seattle had 62 tower cranes around town.

Spokane isn’t so tower-ful. We’ve got just the one. Garco bought the $1 million machine in 2006 from the Italian company Terex Comedil, when it won a contract from the city of Spokane to build two egg-shaped sewage “digesters” at Spokane’s wastewater treatment plant on Aubrey L. White Parkway.

Since then, it was used to construct the parking garage at Northern Quest Casino & Resort in 2008, and at the Ferris High School renovation completed in 2014. Other than the Coast Crane Company tower crane rented by Walker Construction in 2015 to build the 13-story Rockwood Summit Tower on the South Hill, Garco’s dominated the tower crane skyline in Spokane.

And Forbush is Garco’s man. He was the first to use the tower, and is the only one on Garco’s team who knows how to operate the 35-ton tower crane, which has a jib, or projecting front arm, that’s 226 feet long.

“We bought it brand new from Italy,” he said. “I pulled the cellophane off the seat myself.”

Before he could use it, though, Forbush went through extensive training with the Italian technical crew. There was, he said, a bit of a language barrier.

“It was like a Pictionary game,” Forbush said. Now, of course, he swears by the ingenuity of Italian engineers.

But it’s not all been rapturous views and blue-chip building success.

His fingers fiddling with a cigarette, Forbush recalled a tragic, early moment in his days operating the tower crane.

During construction of the egg digester in December 2006, a 26-year-old North Idaho resident and Garco employee, Tizoc Gayton, was killed while removing sheet piling in a temporary retaining wall. Forbush, alone in his booth, had to uncover Gayton with the tower crane.

Aside from that, Forbush has nothing but praise for his work, and his company.

He moved from Seattle to work at a Louisiana-Pacific mill in Priest River decades ago. When the mill closed, Forbush retrained as an equipment operator. He’s been with Garco since then – for 21 years.

For this nine-month gig, every morning he drives in from Idaho’s Silver Valley and climbs the 171 stairs to his booth before his 7 a.m. shift begins.

“I go up in the morning, and I don’t come down all day,” he said. “I don’t want anyone waiting on me. I want to be waiting on them.”

It’s eight and a half hours up there. He’s got a microwave. When nature calls, he turns the crane away from the peering eyes of the library and fills an empty Tide detergent bottle.

“I just act like I’m doing something else,” he said, laughing. “Everyone asks about that. Everyone.”

Stretches of boredom are punctuated with intense concentration.

With radio contact down below, he moves the cages and panels over the 15 to 20 crewmen, sliding the forms into place 14 stories below. He knows once he lets loose of the controls, the crane will keep going seven or eight feet, and if he has to land a panel somewhere he’s got to know that big machine well.

If the wind’s blowing, sometimes Forbush can see the crane’s base twist seconds before the jostle hits his skyward cabin. He’s something of a wind whisperer, watching it whip his colleagues below, hearing it whistle through the tower halfway up and feeling nothing but calm air in the booth.

“Up there, there may be nothing. Wind has different elevations,” he said. “There’s a lot of math, a lot of judgment. Watching the wind.”

It’s complex, but Forbush has been doing it long enough to know his and his crane’s limitations.

“Being with these guys so long, I trust them and they trust me,” he said.

Forbush acknowledges the work is enviable, but isn’t for everyone. The booth’s view is great, sure, but it’s also solitary.

“Not a lot of people get to do what I do. Not a lot of people get to see what I see. The views are excellent,” he said. “It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. But it gets lonely. I’ll be honest. It gets lonely.”

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