In the safety of her own home, Kiersten Smith had every reason to feel safe on this summer day – from the approaching storm, from the dangers of a booming city, and most certainly from the huge construction crane that hovered over her.
But as the winds lashed into a frenzy, steel gave way, and the crane fell and crashed through Smith’s apartment and dozens of others.
In the security of her own house, Kiersten Smith had every reason to feel safe on this summer’s day – from the approaching storm, from the dangers of a booming city and especially from the gigantic construction crane that hovered over her.
Five were injured, many were left homeless, and 29-year-old Smith was dead, struck down in a tragedy her fiancé would have seen if it hadn’t been for the cloud of dust and debris that consumed her apartment – and the crickets of cheese sandwiches he was making.
After the June 9 collapse, NBC 5 Investigates began asking what the state of Texas – the nation’s leader in crane-related deaths – and the city of Dallas are doing to protect the public from such accidents in the future.
The answer can be summed up in one word: nothing.
Answers from the city and state on crane safety
Telling our findings, Texas Senator Royce West (D-Dallas) said new state regulations should be considered to better protect the public from the heavy steel and cables that now tower over them.
“We need to make sure that people who live under these cranes, in homes and the like, are considerate of their safety and wellbeing,” said West, whose legislative district includes the apartment where Smith was killed.
Dallas City Manager TC Broadnax declined an interview request with NBC 5 Investigates to discuss crane safety in Dallas.
Instead, the city sent an email stating, “Currently, the city is not complying with local regulations for installing, using, or maintaining construction cranes.”
“The city staff will continue to regularly evaluate the guidelines and procedures and recommend changes to the city tour if necessary …”, the email continued.
NBC 5 on Monday recorded drone footage of the damage done to an apartment in Dallas that was hit by a collapsed crane on Sunday, June 9, 2019.
The city said it doesn’t even keep a record of how many construction cranes are set up or where they are, prompting NBC 5 Investigates to do its own census.
In Dallas alone we found 21, and they were just tower cranes, the largest in the construction crane range.
Dallas isn’t the only city in Texas to ignore the huge elevators and the qualifications of their operators.
The cities of Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston also told NBC 5 Investigates that they are doing nothing to regulate or monitor the cranes that are rising in a growing economy and construction boom.
A security expert told NBC 5 Investigations that the investigation into the collapse of a crane near downtown Dallas would likely focus on Sunday’s extreme weather and support for the crane.
“The city doesn’t track cranes,” Houston said in an email, adding, “Also, no planning permission is required to use a crane, so we wouldn’t have statistics on current crane usage.”
The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation and the Texas Department of Insurance also said that cranes and crane operators are not under their supervision and that it is left to the federal government to oversee it.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA for short, requires third parties to inspect cranes and, since last year, has required operators to be certified by an accredited certification body.
In an email, OSHA announced to NBC 5 Investigates that it had completed 40 crane inspections between October 1, 2018 and June 30 in Region VI, which consists of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
On Tuesday, it will be a month since a crane collapse in Dallas killed a young woman and injured several apartment residents. In the weeks since the construction crane fell over in a storm, more than 500 displaced residents of Elan City Lights have tried to pick up the broken pieces and move them on.
Tom Barth, crane operator and accident investigator with more than four decades of experience, said OSHA’s inspection requirements don’t go far enough.
He said the agency rarely reviews third party inspection reports or conducts its own inspection unless a formal complaint is made or an accident occurs.
“And with all of the thousands and thousands of cranes in the United States, OSHA doesn’t have that many inspectors …” said Barth.
He also said local inspectors should watch crane operators at work, noting that all of the 140 crane accidents he investigated involved some type of operator error.
Those who called Elan City Lights home by Sunday afternoon will be forced to find a new place to stay. “The building has become completely unusable for residential purposes and you can no longer move into your apartment,” said the apartment manager on Monday in a message published online.
“Someone has to watch these crane operators and they need more training,” Barth told NBC 5 Investigates, adding, “You can become a certified crane operator in four weeks.”
“That’s ridiculous,” he said.
Texas leads the country in crane-related deaths among workers, which totaled 50 between 2011 and 2017, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That far exceeds the next four states: Florida and New York, each with a total of 16 deaths; and California and Illinois, each with 14 fatalities, the BLS reported.
Although Texas leads the country in crane deaths, Texas is not on the list of 16 states and seven cities that now have their own crane operator license requirements, according to the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators.
Following accidents in New York City, the city introduced the country’s toughest laws, requiring better monitoring of construction sites and the installation of “black box” devices to record crane operations.
In Bellevue, Washington, after a crane collapse in 2006 that killed a man in an apartment, the state passed strict regulations requiring government approval before installing cranes and increased operator training.
And in Chicago, city inspectors check cranes when they are installed and every time they are lifted up a higher floor.
“Yeah, we’re worried,” said Dallas store owner Royd Riddell, who was surprised to learn that the city was doing nothing to regulate the skyscraper cranes that popped his little antique map and small print shop Shadows.
“That would wipe me out,” says Riddell of the tower crane that grips over his shop, “and of course the people in the skyscraper next to me.”
“Well, it would be tragic.”