NEW YORK - A construction crane snapped and smashed into an apartment building with a thunderous roar Friday, killing two workers in the city's second such tragedy in 2 1/2 months and renewing fears about the safety of hundreds of cranes towering over the New York skyline.
The collapse happened despite stepped-up inspections and a shake-up in the city Buildings Department after the earlier accident, which killed seven people in March.
The 200-foot crane fell apart on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where contractors were building a 32-story luxury condo complex, about 12 stories high.
Scott Bair, a foreman who arrived at the site seconds after the crane fell, said several co-workers told him the crane had just dropped off a load of materials on the top of the building and was turning to pick up a load from the street when "the turntable popped off - even though there are 16 bolts that hold it down. It could be an issue with the bolts."
The turntable is a piece of equipment that helps the crane rotate.
Acting Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri said that investigators "will be focusing on a particular weld that failed" on the crane, and noted that the 24-year-old crane's model, the Kodiak, is out of production and one of only four in the city.
LiMandri also suspended several crane operations in the city and called an emergency meeting of experts Saturday to address crane safety.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the accident "unacceptable and intolerable" but said the city appeared to have followed regulations. "Sadly, we have construction accidents all over the world," he added.
With the city going through a supercharged building boom and an estimated 250 cranes in operation as of mid-March, New York has seen a series of deadly construction accidents. Nine people have died in crane accidents so far this year, versus none in all of last year, and two in 2006.
"Construction of buildings is out of control in this city," City Councilman Tony Avella said. "How many people have to die before the mayor decides enough is enough?"
City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, who represented the neighborhood affected by the March collapse, said: "People shouldn't live in fear walking near a construction site - and certainly shouldn't feel fear sitting in their living rooms."
Buildings Department records said officials halted work at the Upper East Side site after the crane failed "load tests" on two straight days, April 22-23. However, the crane passed another test the next day. No violations had been issued in connection with the crane.
Department records also indicate several neighborhood complaints about cranes at the site in recent weeks. At least two callers had expressed concerns about parts of the crane extending past safety barriers. One complained that workers were hoisting heavy metal and concrete over the heads of pedestrians.
Inspectors found most of the concerns were unwarranted, and Buildings Department officials had inspected the crane three times this month, the last time on Thursday. Inspectors responded to a complaint about the crane hoisting loads above workers, but did not see it happening on Thursday, department spokeswoman Kate Lindquist said.
The crane toppled just after 8 a.m., destroying a penthouse apartment across the street and knocking off balconies on the apartment building as it plunged 20 stories into a heap of twisted steel. The city said in a statement that the cab where the operator sits had separated from the crane's tower.
"The sound was like a thunderclap. Then, an earthquake," said Peter Barba, who lives on the seventh floor.
Killed were the crane operator, Donald Leo, 30, and another worker, 27-year-old Ramadan Kurtaj. A third construction worker was seriously injured, and one pedestrian was treated for minor injuries.
Construction foreman Scott Bair said one of the workers on his 40-man crew was taken to the hospital with his "chest slashed open." His eyes filled with tears, Bair said his own life was saved because he left to get an egg sandwich for breakfast a block away just before the collapse.
"I thought, I'm hungry, and I want to go get something to eat - and that saved my life," he said. When he returned to the site, "Everyone was shook up and crying. These are some hardened men, but they were crying."
Dan Mooney, a longtime New York crane operator who went to the scene after hearing about the accident, said he was stunned by what he saw.
Crane operators, Mooney said, generally need to handle their loads very carefully to keep the top-heavy machines from becoming unbalanced. If an operator tries to lift a load that is too heavy, too fast, it could pull the rig over or cause it to sway dangerously. Stopping short while swinging a very heavy load could cause the same problem, as could having a big load suddenly drop off the end of the crane.
"Any instability in the load could be a problem," Mooney said.
Bloomberg said the crane was a different model from the one that collapsed in March. "It looks like a pattern, but there's no reason to think there's any real connection," the mayor said.
Construction workers have died in recent weeks in crane accidents in Iowa, Missouri and Miami. In Washington, officials called for emergency inspections of its 40 cranes after Friday's accident.
In New York, the general contractor on the project, Leon D. DeMatteis Construction Corp., said Sorbara Construction, a subcontractor, was in charge of operating the crane. A woman who answered the telephone at Sorbara said no one was available to comment.
In the March 15 accident, contractors building a 46-story condominium near the United Nations - about two miles from the site of Friday's accident - were trying to lengthen the crane when a steel support broke. A four-story townhouse was demolished and several other buildings were damaged.
Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster resigned under pressure a month later. The city also added extra inspections at building sites and required that its staff be on hand whenever the cranes were raised higher. But this week, the department said an inspector no longer had to be present