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Crane Accident Slashes Townhouses

Residents concerned about remaining crane and structural damage.

For some reason, Joe Wyche couldn’t sleep Friday morning. Coming off a night shift he usually slept a little later. This morning, however, his back was bothering him so he decided to run out to the store to pick up some coffee and a newspaper. When he returned home a few minutes later, his house was gone.

Wyche was one of six homeowners in Huntington Station whose homes were severely damaged when an 18-story crane operated by KSI toppled over from its base at the Midtown Condominium project and fell onto the adjacent townhouses in Huntington Station.

It happened just before 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 30. The crane operator jumped out of the cab at 30 feet. He is reported to have broken bones and bruises and to be in serious condition. Had he not jumped, he would have been crushed to death.

John Anderson was asleep in his townhouse when he heard a big whooshing sound. The building started to shake and when he looked outside he saw that part of his deck was gone. It wasn’t until he went outside that he realized what had happened. He lives in the seventh townhouse in the row of eight; only the first six were hit by the crane. Other than his deck, his unit was untouched, yet his head was probably not more than four feet from the point of impact.

“I think somebody likes me,” said Anderson who was the only one in that row of townhouses who was home when it happened.

RENE MINVIELLE WAS HOME in her townhouse directly across from where the crane hit. “I heard it before I saw it. I was going to wake my daughter up for school and I scooped her up and got her out of the house," she said. "It was so loud and there was so much shaking for at least 20 minutes. I called my husband, Tom — he had just gotten to his desk at work.

“They told me that my wife called and that something was wrong,” he said. “I told them that I’ve got to go [home].”

Minvielle didn’t know whether or not anybody was home so she started banging on doors telling people to get out. She knew that one of the homeowners was on their way home from Hawaii; she caught up with the wife in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

“I have some bad news,” Minvielle said, “Your house is sliced open.”

Surveying the damage, Minvielle said, “It’s devastating. Two of these homes were just purchased; I can’t imagine what they’re feeling.”

Phyllis Seidler lives next door to the Minvielles; she was on her way to the Metro and had just walked across the path where the crane fell moments before it came down.

“I live in the row of town homes directly across the courtyard from the homes that were demolished by the crane accident,” Seidler said. “I left the house a few minutes after 8 a.m. on Friday morning. I had walked the length of the community parking lot to the sidewalk where I was waiting to cross Huntington Avenue to the metro. (It takes about 2 minutes or less to do this.) A man sitting at the bus stop across the street was waving his arms and I couldn't figure out if he was waving at me or someone else. Then I heard a boom, boom, boom.

“I turned to see the crane wrecked into the end unit of the row. Quite honestly I think I couldn't quite comprehend for a moment what I was seeing. I ran back towards the town homes and uttered to myself ... Oh dear God, I hope no one is still at home.

“I called 911 from my cell and was told that they were getting several other calls. I prayed for the crane operator as he was lying on the ground, and obviously we didn't know the extent of his injuries. A doctor that lives in our community came to help minutes later. When the police and rescue arrived they broke into every town home as part of search and rescue. Thank God no one else was hurt or killed.

“It was a shocking, traumatic experience, but I feel very thankful to be alive. I know in my heart that I could have been seriously injured and probably more likely killed had I passed by a mere few minutes later when the crane fell. Friday was not my time to die.

“It feels a lot like 9/11. I was working in a building in Pentagon City, directly across the highway from the Pentagon. Our office was on the top floor with a view of the South side of the Pentagon. A co-worker and I were viewing the attack on the World Trade Center when we heard a boom and actually felt the vibration of the impact. We jumped up, looking directly at the Pentagon, to see a huge fireball coming out of the Pentagon. After 9/11 we would run to the window every time we heard a plane.

"I will never look at a crane in the same way again.”

DON ANDERSON, who lives on the other side of the affected townhouses, saw the accident.

“I was in my house opening the blind when I saw the crane crash on the houses,” he said. “I came out and saw it lying on the ground. When I realized what was happening, it was unbelievable. We started trying alert people in the houses—nobody was home, that was really lucky.”

Joshua Welling and Jay Roberson were working across the street at the Huntington Metro and were two of the first people on the scene.

“I heard a dull thud and by the time I got down here and saw the crane, I saw the operator breathing slowly,” Welling said. “His leg was messed up. I started running around to the townhouses, knocking on doors.”

Roberson stayed with the operator and said, “He was pretty banged up. He didn’t realize that he had broken both legs. I talked to him, called 911 and kept him calm. We put a blanket over him. He had cuts on his face and a big bruise on the lower abdomen area. Most of the visual injuries were on his face and legs. He knew he had to get out of there [the crane].”

CONTRACTORS WORKED throughout the night to remove the crane from the houses, and by the morning pieces of the crane lay strewn throughout the construction site and the townhouse development. An eight-foot hole shows the point of impact.

Bovis Lend Lease Holdings Inc. is the general contractor, KSI Management the developer, and SMC the sub-contractor responsible for the operation of the crane.

Mary Costello, vice president of corporate affairs for Bovis, said they are building a 369-unit condominium building and a six-level, above-ground parking structure at the site adjacent to the townhouses.

Costello said KSI is coordinating details with the residents, but that both companies are working with Fairfax fire and rescue officials and Virginia's office of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) to determine the cause of the accident.

Gerry Mello, treasurer of Huntington Station Association (HSA), said that KSI had made arrangements for owners to stay in hotels. They were also on site monitoring the removal of the crane.

“They took enough away so that people could get in and out of their driveways,” Mello said.

Jamie Gorski, chief marketing officer for KSI, said that they had provided rooms for the residents at the Ritz-Carton for three nights. They have also offered additional assistance if needed. Most residents are now working with their individual insurance agents.

“At this point Bovis is working with the Fairfax County building agencies and OSHA to investigate the accident and determine when construction will resume,” Gorski said. “We are all working together. We are concerned about the welfare of the residents and will do whatever we can to help them.”

MELLO SAID that association members met on Sunday to discuss the situation and decided that their three main concerns were: the repair or rebuilding of the damaged townhouses; the assessment of damage to adjacent structures; and the general safety consideration of the other crane over the townhouses.

This second crane rises up to 22 stories high, four stories higher than the crane that collapsed.

“The rest of us can live in our houses, but there is a fear factor,” Mello said.

The association has sent a letter to Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland asking that the crane be inspected by the proper authorities.

The Mount Vernon District supervisor said that he was working with OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to ensure that the crane was fully inspected and as of Tuesday morning, he believed that had been done.

“The citizens just want something in writing,” Hyland said.

Regarding the rebuilding of the townhouses, Hyland said that the county would be inspecting the repairs and/or rebuilding.

Mack B. Rhoades, Jr., PhD, president, Huntington Community Association, Inc., has been talking to the president of Huntington Station’s Association, and said, “We have always been in a good relationship. KSI has entered houses without permission of the owners and I want that stopped immediately. I also have asked that all crane operations cease until there’s a full investigation. Moreover, KSI is starting to be less than helpful for the residents they are responsible for displacing. If necessary, I plan to call ask OSHA to perform a full site inspection. I have asked Hyland to stop the cranes from operating until the existing one is inspected and we know the cause of the accident. I also expect KSI to do much more and have made that known to Supervisor Hyland.

"If KSI does not cooperate fully, I will ask the council to also look at actions it can take. If necessary, we will contact the television news media and tell our side of the issues. This is not the way to ‘fit in’ to the community. We also plan to see if it is prudent for the cranes to operate over existing homes. I plan to talk to Hyland about that as well.”

MINVIELLE SAID SEVERAL of the homeowners had expressed concerns about the crane’s safety at homeowners’ meeting before the accident happened. They were told that it was properly inspected and well maintained. It is unclear what caused the accident and it may take weeks or months to determine. Minvielle understands that the investigation may take awhile, but she doesn’t want to see the second crane back in operation until it’s been determined what happened to the first crane.

“None of us feel comfortable now,” she said. “They need to find a way to finish this project without that crane. There’s no reassurance that that’s not coming down as well.”

She said that there was a group of people out testing the crane that is still standing Tuesday afternoon.

“We do not know who hired them or what organization they were from,” she said. “We hope they don't start up work again tomorrow, as we still have not seen the inspection report from this crane and the investigation for the collapsed crane has not been completed.”

In the meantime, Minvielle and others are trying to help out where they can — either receiving packages, preparing lunches or keeping track of the dozens of contractors, adjusters and inspectors who have been roaming the premises. Homeowners have been allowed to enter their houses and move out what items are reachable.

“Now people are going through the motions and trying to sort things out,” she said.

She said that Bill and Diana Drake, who live in the fourth unit, have recovered everything but their master bedroom.

“They can’t even see their master bathroom,” Minvielle said. “We’re doing everything that we can to help — just tell me what you need me to do and I will do it.”

Minvielle and others are worried that their units may have been damaged by the impact as well and are asking for structural engineers to come in and examine.

“I just want some kind of life back,” said Wyche, who spent the week meeting with adjusters and moving out some of his items. The contractor had put a cover up but he was making arrangements with a private contractor to seal off his house.

KSI had put up the owners at the Ritz-Carlton for the weekend; now however they are offering accommodations at the Hawthorne Suites, which is 2 one-half miles from the Metro.

“That’s just too far,” Minvielle said. “Most people live here because of the Metro; they can’t walk 2 and a half miles.”

Wyche has rented an apartment while he waits to see what they decide to do. It is not clear whether the county will require that his townhouse will need to be torn down and rebuilt or just repair the damaged areas.

“I’m waiting to see what Fairfax County has to say and what they see structurally,” Wyche said.

“There are different opinions from different sources,” Minvielle said. “Some say that the foundations have been compromised and the units have to be completely rebuilt; others say that the units were built in sections and they can just replace the third floor.”

In the meantime, residents of Huntington Station will be keeping a close eye on that 22-story crane looming above their buildings, hoping that they don’t see movement anytime soon.