Debra K. Rubin/ENR
Hofmanns office is a cramped crane cab with a view of lower Manhattan skyline.

Pia Hofmann is unhappy this Monday morning that demolition of Ground Zero’s Deutsche Bank building, the last major remnant of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack didn’t progress fast enough the week before to “jump down” her 320-ft-tall tower crane by 70 ft. 

“Your depth perception is difficult when you’re this high up,” says the union operating engineer, who has run the Australian-made luffing jib crane since March 15 at the damaged structure, helping to painstakingly dismantle it floor by floor. Working in Manhattan’s high-rise construction is a challenge a minute, even at 6:30 a.m., but Hofmann doesn’t forget to ask “the guys” about their weekends.


A Day in the Life of Pia Hofmann

This is Hofmann’s second tour of duty at the former World Trade Center site. She is highly respected in the union’s tough Local 14 and was personally selected for the Deutsche Bank job by demolition subcontractor The John Galt Corp., Bronx, N.Y. She was among the core of craft workers toiling in the Ground Zero pit for months after 9/11 to recover human remains and building debris. Hofmann, who ran a smaller ground-level crane at the time, was later chosen to represent site construction workers as a pall- bearer for what was then believed to be the last civilian remains removed from the Ground Zero site.

Hofmann clearly feels the pressure of the high-profile, high-stakes project to take down what was an asbestos-laden, 40-story structure to make room for construction of a $2-billion, 1.3-billion-sq-ft headquarters for financial giant JPMorgan Chase. Although crews have removed nearly eight floors of steel, concrete and debris, demolition is as much as a year behind schedule, millions of dollars over budget and under the constant scrutiny of environmental and safety regulators.

Debra K. Rubin/ENR
Debris loads are tough to maneuver.

Hofmann bristles at the grief she and other operating engineers took following a May 17 incident that sent a 15-ft steel pipe crashing through the roof of an adjacent firehouse, injuring two firefighters. The pipe actually fell off a bank floor in an accident related to changed debris-gathering procedures. “But we now have plywood on roofs five floors below where we are working,” she says. Even with the precautions, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration reportedly fined Galt $37,000 for various safety infractions.

Even as Hofmann clambers briskly up a straight vertical ladder for the last 150 ft of the climb to the cab of her Favco Favelle 760 model crane, the height is still a little disconcerting. The ironworkers clearing tons of debris from the bank’s 32nd floor and upon whom she depends for operating signals seem like Lilliputians. “They’re so far away,” she says.

Hofmann curses the finicky machine, which has seen better days, even after the daily greasing and maintenance by Freddy, another Local 14 operating engineer who shies away from further identification or conversation. Adjusting the cab’s “custom” venetian blinds for sun glare on this bright, blue-sky day, she readies for what will be the first of 30 to 50  picks of large containers filled with debris. Hofmann waits for workers to secure the container and loose steel before she maneuvers the load to the ground where another crew unloads it for disposal and recycling. The crane is designed to lift up to 70,000 lb, but at the angle of its 220-ft-long boom, the machine today has a 56,000-lb limit.

Debra K. Rubin/ENR
Crane at Deutsche Bank overlooks World Trade Center rebuilding. (below).

This is no ordinary demolition site. Just underneath are workers carving a new core of structures in the Ground Zero void. Meandering not far away are the hordes of daily tourists angling for a view of the site and its nearby memorials.

Hofmann is obsessive about crane safety, even more so on this breezy day. Among those moving around below is her own son Todd, 25, a union laborer with five years under his belt. “I put a lot of trust in how the ironworkers bundle the loads together,” she says. Hofmann also mentions the “crane ghosts,” the people who died in or on the bank building on 9/11.

Deconstruction of Deutsche Bank, now owned by New York state, was set to wrap up in December. It’s now next February, says P.J. Mazzucca, Galt vice president. Until then, Hofmann’s job will be a lonely vigil; few visitors are permitted, willing or able to tackle the climb. Except for short visits from Freddy, her companions are a radio, pager and video screen of 700 ft of cable.

Hofmann is allowed one half-hour “climb time” each way and looks forward to lunch for a break from the nonstop concentration required. Toilet facilities are plastic buckets that are emptied into a crane-mounted sludge tank. But at least on this sunny, crisp day, the spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline and waterfront seems worth  some of the job’s daily hassles.

“I ask myself, why do this?” says Hofmann. “I guess it’s because I’m an adrenaline junkie.” She says she has not taken vacation or sick time since starting the Deutsche Bank job and is asleep by 9:30 p.m. to be ready for the dawn commute with Todd from Inwood, an upper-middle-class Long Island suburb. “I have to be alert,” she says.

Debra K. Rubin/ENR

But her dedication is economic as well. She earns a six-figure salary as a veteran operating engineer in New York City, critical for a working mother who for years was the sole support for Todd and his 28-year-old brother, Russell, a marine carpenter. Her two sons live in a home together near their mother.

Hofmann has long been a pioneer, dating back to at least the age of 16 when she immigrated alone to the U.S. from a small village near Frankfurt, Germany. “I was bored,” says Hofmann, whose mother and siblings still live there. Hofmann’s current career follows a succession of others, from being a nanny to a guard at  Riker’s Island prison to running a dress manufacturing business.

By the afternoon, time is dragging and  Hofmann struggles to stay fixed on the task at hand. “When we’re working overtime, the last two hours kill me,” she says, noting that a second tower crane was nixed for budget reasons. The crane costs site contractors $75,000 a month to rent. But relations between rental firm officials and site participants has been rocky. When the cab’s overhead  air conditioner went bust and the rental company did not respond, Hofmann’s colleagues  cut a hole in the door and mounted a new one.

While Hofmann just wants to be “one of the guys,” she accepts the challenge and responsibility of being a role model for women in the trades. She’s had offers to be a construction firm manager but isn’t planning to accept now. Says Hofmann: “I don’t like to walk away from an unfinished project.”