It’s an office window like none other in Buffalo.
On a clear day, Keegan Lachut can see the wind turbines in Wyoming County.
When he swings around, he can make out the mist coming off Niagara Falls, the lights of Seneca Niagara Casino, the contours of Grand Island and the shores of Canada.
And then he looks down. Past his feet, through the Plexiglas floor and metal bars to the construction site teeming with activity 212 feet below.
“You gotta see the view,” he said.
From inside the cramped cab with few creature comforts, Lachut operates the monstrous tower crane that looms over the construction site at the corner of Main and High streets, where construction firm LPCiminelli is building the Conventus facility at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
The crane isn’t even the largest in downtown Buffalo. The apex of the tower crane across from First Niagara Center, where Mortenson Construction is building the Buffalo Sabres’ HarborCenter project, stretches about 250 feet above the ground. And more of these tower cranes are coming as construction progresses at both locations.
The enormous pillars of steel have people talking.
Southbound drivers on the Niagara Thruway could be forgiven for becoming nervous as they approach the exit for the Skyway – when the crane’s “jib,” or arm, points north. The yellow HarborCenter crane from a distance looks as if it could drop something on the cars below, like a rebar Godzilla wreaking havoc on an unsuspecting city.
The waterfront crane is capable of lifting 45,000 pounds, the equivalent of almost 10 Ford F-150 trucks or more than 170 Bruce Smiths.
These giant cranes, used for lifting heavy loads of construction material and transporting them around the site, are a visible indication of progress to residents who have waited as plans for the waterfront and Medical Campus stalled over the last decade. They even inspired a recent sermon by the Rev. Darius Pridgen, pastor at True Bethel Baptist Church and Buffalo Common Council member, who sees the towering structures as beacons of hope.
“I haven’t seen this many cranes moving at the same time in the City of Buffalo in recent history,” Pridgen said. “So of course as a pastor, as a Council member, as a native Buffalonian, I’m very excited to see so much progress happening in so many different areas.”
Even the men who operate the giant cranes are surprised to see them in Buffalo.
“I never in a million years thought I’d be in a tower crane,” said Matt Hillman Sr., a crane operator who also works at the Conventus site. He and Lachut, both Western New Yorkers, said the crane was the tallest they’d ever climbed. Hillman said it was exciting to be at the center of all the action.
“When everybody’s driving by, they see the crane, and there’s us two, running it,” Hillman said. “Everybody’s like, ‘Them guys are nuts!’ ”
They just may be.
The daily climb
Their morning commute starts with a walk down a long ramp that goes about two stories below ground level at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus site.
Hillman and Lachut ascend the crane by climbing a series of ladders in the center of the tower. They wear work gloves, but no harness, as they climb up the 223 rungs to the top, a strenuous workout that leaves newbies aching the next day.
Depending on how many breaks they take, Lachut said, it can take up to 20 minutes to reach the top. Once they get to the top, they make their way to the door to the crane’s cab, where the operators work alone or in pairs.
The operators bring their lunches up with them, and yes, there is a bathroom at the top – a no-frills port-o-john. There’s a small air-conditioning unit to help them keep cool in the summer and a space heater for winter.
The cab, about 7 feet by 4 feet, is equipped with a chair that has two joysticks. There’s a panel in the front covered with an array of gauges and instruments.
To move the crane, the operators use walkie-talkies to communicate with the workers below. They maneuver the joysticks as they hunker down and peer through their feet at the site below them, ever cognizant about how dangerous one careless move could be.
They don’t just stay in the cab. Quite often, there’s work to be done outside the cab and even on the boom. They make sure to wear a safety harness for that work.
The operators said the height of the crane doesn’t scare them, but they acknowledged that it was “a little nerve-racking” the first time they looked down. The money they earn – they wouldn’t say how much, except to acknowledge it is good pay – is worth the risk, they said.
“It’s kinda hard to justify climbing 200 feet every day to not make good money,” Lachut said.
Then there’s the wind, which the men said feels like an airplane hitting turbulence. Even the motion of a little trolley that goes out on the crane’s boom causes the cab to move back and forth.
Contending with the weather can be tough, Lachut said, a “battle.”
If the wind reaches 45 mph, the crane has to be shut down. If it reaches 60 mph, the operators have to come down to the ground.
But the crane can handle gusts of up to 110 mph before anyone has to worry about it collapsing, they said. That’s what happened last fall after Superstorm Sandy, when a massive crane on West 57th Street in Manhattan was left dangerously swaying over the street from 70 floors above.
“We had some ironworkers from here who went down there to take that down,” Hillman said of the Manhattan crane.
More cranes to come
Lachut and Hillman won’t be the only crane operators on the Medical Campus.
More tower cranes are coming soon to build new facilities for Children’s Hospital, Roswell Park and the University at Buffalo, said Doug Elia, an LPCiminelli project executive overseeing the Conventus project.
“The one at Children’s Hospital is gonna be right next to ours,” Elia said. “We kind of call it dueling light sabers up in the sky.”
A second crane is scheduled to arrive at the HarborCenter site as well, and it’s going to be bigger than the first. Its apex will reach about 300 feet into the clouds, which would make it the seventh-tallest building in Buffalo – rising above the Electric Tower and dwarfing the Central Terminal and the Statler building.
Building the cranes requires more cranes. The one at the Medical Campus was erected with the help of what Elia called a “small little” 40-ton crane, which is used to build a 350-ton crane, which in turn is employed to assemble the tower crane.
The HarborCenter cranes arrived from Kansas and Tennessee in pieces 20- to 30-feet long. It took 30 trailers of parts and pieces to transport the crane standing now, said Joel McWilliams, who oversees the project for Mortenson.
“They’ll put them together just like an erector set, one on top of the other,” McWilliams said of setting up the second HarborCenter crane.
A third crane will be used to build that one, as well.
McWilliams is not a crane operator, but as a project manager, he’s tried his hand at it before. He said the operators climb the cranes and operate them without a safety harness.
“They’ve got a lot of things going on up there,” McWilliams said. “I’ve run one for a couple hours here and there a couple times, and they’re just like big toys. You got two little joysticks on each side, and you move them around and pick things up and down. It’s pretty fun.”
The current HarborCenter crane can lift material up to 212 feet into the air and has 235 feet of outward reach. McWilliams said the operators have a difficult job, controlling the crane by making different movements with both hands and feet, almost like the way a drummer’s hands and feet play different rhythms at the same time. It’s like having multiple brains, all thinking independently.
“I’m not ambidextrous,” McWilliams said. “I can’t do that double hand and feet thing. I give them all the credit in the world.”
To become crane operators, Lachut and Hillman had to get licenses from New York State, which required four years and 5,000 hours of training.
“You gotta be thinking about what’s going on below you,” Lachut said.
Often, an “oiler” on the ground talks to the operator by radio to help navigate blind spots and tell him what to do next.
“Always thinking ahead,” he said.
The cranes at both the Medical Campus and HarborCenter are expected to stand for about a year. Eventually, they will get in the way as the buildings rise from their foundations, and they will be taken down. Until then, they’ll serve as a reminder that those buildings are finally becoming reality.
“Although the building is not there, the vision of the crane is exciting because it represents what’s on the way,” said Pridgen, the Council member.
As other projects move forward, Western New Yorkers might actually become used to seeing cranes.
“Cranes usually aren’t around in Buffalo,” Lachut said. “It was, up until this point, very rare to see one in Buffalo. And now there could be five of them down here this year.”