New York Supreme Court Judge Roger Hayes’ tersely-worded verdict declared master rigger William Rapetti not guilty on a multitude of charges that included manslaughter and negligent homicide for his role in the collapse that killed seven and injured dozens more.
But with 58 civil suits still pending against Rapetti and his firm, Rapetti Rigging Services, Massapequa Park, N.Y., there is plenty of blame going around for the accident.
During the trial Rapetti’s attorney’s argued that the crane collapsed because the developer of the rising condominium on East 51st Street rushed construction during the tail-end of the city’s housing boom in late 2007 and early 2008.
In particular, the defense claimed that the crane’s installation engineer rushed the welding of the tie-beams on the building’s ninth floor, sped up on the controls on the computer controlling the joystick, and used an unorthodox design foregoing the bolting of the crane to the ground. The crane’s computer system was also revealed to have been beset with problems for months before the collapse.
Throughout the trial, defense attorney Arthur Aidala also accused New York of “incompetence at the highest levels of city government,” noting Department of Buildings (DOB) inspector Edward Marquette was indicted for saying he inspected the doomed crane when he allegedly did not.
Howard Hershenhorn, who represents the wife of victim Wayne Bleidner in one of the civil cases against Rapetti and several defendants, agrees that what he calls a “domino effect of errors” caused the crane to tumble. Unnecessarily
“This does not really appear to be solely [the fault of] Rapetti, but rather a combination of fault by several different people and entities that led to this calamity,” he says.
Steven Dorfman, the attorney for John Gallego, who testified during the trial that he was “buried alive” by the fallen crane, agrees. “In the past, everybody was trying to point the finger on Rapetti and lay the blame on him, they can’t really do that now,” he says.
He adds that his case includes owners, general contractors, and the city, as well.
“I feel the defendants in my case are the appropriate parties,” Dorfman says.
Although Hershenhorn acknowledges that the allegedly absentee inspector makes for a “sexy case against the city,” he doubts that New York City will suffer much “practical fallout” because it is difficult to prove that a proper inspection would have prevented the collapse.
Even without legal ramifications, the city has been battered since the beginning of the trial with accusations of the DOB’s incompetence as well as the unraveling of the prosecutor’s case against the man regulatory agencies blamed for the tragedy.
Throughout the trial, several of the prosecution’s witnesses seemed to aide Rapetti’s defense by speaking highly of the embattled rigger and contradicting the prosecutions’ allegations.
District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. declined to speak to the press about the many perceived mishaps of the prosecution following the verdict, except in a short statement expressing that he was “extremely disappointed” by the outcome.
Department of Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri, on the other hand, obliquely echoed the sentiments of Rapetti’s defense in saying, “It is clear that shortcuts, in order to save time and money, can have devastating consequences.”
His spokesman Tony Sclafani pointed out that the department enacted “a number of reforms” following the collapse increasing oversight, mandating a 30-hour training course for tower crane workers, prohibiting the use of nylon slings to support the mast “unless specifically recommended by the manufacturers,” increasing inspector training “to unprecedented levels,” and tracking the locations of all inspectors via GPS
In fact, many of these changes that he noted were implemented in direct response to high-profile legal fallouts of the collapse.
For example, the GPS monitoring of building inspectors followed the indictment of Edward Marquette, and the Department of Buildings banned polyester slings after a study by Ove Arup & Partners Consulting Engineers PC blamed them for the 2008 Manhattan collapse.
The latter firm’s opinion led to Rapetti’s indictment.
Yet even with Rapetti’s acquittal, the ban on polyester slings is still on the books.
“Synthetic slings should not be condemned, they’re excellent,” says Edward Shapiro of the Heavy Equipment Services Company, Niantic, Conn. “All of these devices are fine if they’re used within their operating parameters. They’re lighter [and] more user friendly.”
In addition to changing how crane safety equipment is used, the aftermath of the 2008 crane accidents are likely to draw attention training and certification procedures for riggers, signalers and operators.
Six years after a set of guidelines were first proposed, OSHA has been expected to unveil its new certification procedures by the end of July, coincidentally falling shortly after the verdict.
Chip Pocock, a safety and risk manager for Buckner Cos., says he hopes the final regulations will look like the consensus document drafted in 2004 by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Cranes & Derricks Advisory Committee (C-DAC), which was formed to update OSHA’s original safety regulations.
“I was on the seat of that committee along with 21 or 22 other people from the industry, and we finished our work within the time constraints,” Pocock says, adding, “And the government has skidded along. It’s unfortunate.”
OSHA representatives did not return messages seeking comment.
Pocock claims that operator certification has been a “contentious” issue for some time because “some people in the business don’t want to certify crane operators” and would rather operate “by the seat of their pants.”
Art Daniel, president of Daniel Construction Services, Cedar Hill, Tex., and member of OSHA’s Small Busines Advocacy Review Panel, says the emphasis on certification blurs the issue of what it means to be qualified, alleging that “a large majority” of the operators in the high-profile crane accidents of 2008 were certified by an independent accredited program or government entity.
One crane safety operator, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized by his company’s lawyers to talk to the media, claims that C-DAC’s document does not even set up a protocol for certifying riggers, only operators.
He says the document only stipulates that riggers are “qualified” for the job, and fails to define the term.
“If you drop the load, obviously you weren’t qualified,” he says.
He also thinks certification needs to be clarified for specific models of cranes, rather than by a “class” of cranes, as currently proposed. The differences between certain cranes within a particular class can be as wildly divergent as “going from a bicycle to an Indy car,” he claims.
Like licensing drivers, he says, demanding certification for crane operators is “not the end of all the problems,” but it may be “a start to addressing problems.”
- Adam Klasfeld