Trial Opens for Rigger in New York City Crane Collapse

June 24, 2010

A reckless rigger’s safety shortcuts caused a crane collapse that killed seven people, a prosecutor said as the man’s manslaughter trial began Tuesday. His lawyer said the rigger was being unfairly blamed for bad decisions that set up a vulnerable tower of metal.

William Rapetti wiped tears from his face as the prosecutor recounted the March 2008 disaster, one of America’s deadliest crane accidents, in a Manhattan courtroom crowded with relatives and lawyers representing those killed and hurt.

Rapetti’s trial is the first stemming from the collapse, which sent a 200-foot(61-meter)-tall rig hurtling into a residential block near the United Nations headquarters. Besides sparking several criminal cases and a slate of lawsuits, the disaster — and a second New York City crane collapse that killed two people two months later — raised concerns about crane safety and spurred new regulations in the city and elsewhere.

The crane in Rapetti’s case abruptly toppled as it was being extended upward to keep up with the construction of a condominium tower. The collapse crushed a brownstone building, strewed debris as far as a block away and killed six construction workers and a woman tourist in town for the weekend from Florida. Two dozen other people were hurt.

Prosecutors, city building officials and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration found the rig was rocked by the failure of four polyester straps Rapetti and his crew were using temporarily to secure a nearly six-ton steel collar around the crane.

Rapetti used four of the $50 straps — one badly worn — when the crane’s manufacturer called for eight, and he ignored regulations requiring him to take steps to stop the straps from fraying against the crane’s hard edges, prosecutors said. The straps are known as slings.

“The crane collapse of March 15, 2008, was a tragedy, but it was no accident,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Sean Sullivan told a judge in his opening statement. Rapetti declined a jury.

“This wasn’t some strange confluence of unpredictable and unavoidable events,” Sullivan added. “(Rapetti) could have prevented all of these deaths and all of these injuries simply by correctly using a few of these inexpensive polyester web slings.”

But Rapetti’s lawyer, Arthur Aidala, said his own tests indicated the straps were strong enough to hold the collar. The straps snapped only after something else gave way and destabilized the crane, he said.

About 60 to 80 people die in U.S. crane-related incidents in an average year, according to U.S. sfety officials. In some of the most notorious, a 1989 crane collapse in San Francisco killed five people; a July 2008 crane collapse in Houston took four lives.

Since 2008, New York City has hired more inspectors, expanded training requirements and banned the use of nylon straps unless a crane manufacturer recommends them, among other safety initiatives.

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