4 killed, 3 missing in crane accident

NEW YORK – Three people were still listed as missing yesterday as rescue teams picked through the rubble of a town house crushed by a toppling construction crane in an accident that killed four construction workers.

Crews removed one section of the 19-story-tall crane that crashed onto the four-story brownstone and seriously damaged five other buildings in an affluent East Side neighborhood. Rescuers were waiting for removal of the largest pieces of debris so they could intensify their search for possible survivors, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said yesterday.

The missing people were two other construction workers and a woman who was staying at an apartment in the town house, the mayor said.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said that “with each passing hour, things get a little more grim.”

Twenty-four others were injured, including 11 first responders, Bloomberg said. Eight remained hospitalized yesterday, officials said.

The missing woman had come from Miami to visit a friend who lived in the town house and to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the city, said John LeGreco, owner of Fubar, a tavern on the ground floor. The woman’s friend was rescued, he said.

The mayor called the collapse, at the construction site of a new high-rise condo building, one of the city’s worst construction accidents.

The crane broke into pieces Saturday afternoon as it came loose from its supports, toppling across 51st Street and the buildings between there and 50th Street. One section that was lying on top of the remains of the town house jutted into 50th Street.

“I heard a big crash, and I saw dust immediately,” said Maureen Shea, a 66-year-old retired banker who was lying in bed talking on the phone when she glanced out her window and saw bricks raining from the sky. “I thought the crane was coming in my window.”

The four victims were identified as construction workers Wayne Bleidner, 51, of Pelham; Brad Cohen; Anthony Mazza, 39; and Aaron Stephens, 45, of New York City, police said yesterday.

Yesterday, construction crews positioned a second crane to help remove pieces of the toppled structure and started removing piles of debris from the street.

The fallen crane had stood at least 19 stories high and was attached at various points to the side of a half-built apartment tower. The crane was to have been extended Saturday so workers could start work on a new level of the planned 43-story building, said an owner of the company that manages the construction site.

A piece of steel fell and sheared off one of the ties holding it to the building, causing the structure to detach and topple, said Stephen Kaplan, an owner of the Reliance Construction Group.

“It was an absolute freak accident,” he said Saturday. “All the piece of steel had to do was fall slightly left or right, and nothing would have happened.”

Kaplan said the company had subcontracted the work to different companies and was not in charge of the crane. There was no immediate response to calls and an e-mail seeking comment from the crane’s owner, New York Crane ‘ Equipment Corp.

Neighbors said they had complained to the city about the crane.

“I warned the Buildings Department on March 4 that it was not sufficiently braced against the building,” said Bruce Silberblatt, a retired contractor and vice president of the Turtle Bay Neighborhood Association.

The city had issued 13 violations at the construction site in the past 27 months.

Bloomberg said Sunday that investigators were looking at either mechanical failure or “perhaps human error” as a possible cause of the accident.

“As far as we can tell, all procedures that were called for were being followed,” the mayor added.

He said about 250 construction cranes are operating in the city, and he said the accident should not alarm people living near them.

“Do i think that you should worry if there’s a crane across the street? No,” the mayor said. “This is such a rare thing that I don’t think we should worry about it.”

The collapse comes amid a building boom in New York City and follows a spate of construction accidents in recent months, including a few involving cranes. In 2006, a 13-foot piece of a crane mast that was being dismantled fell and crushed a taxi cab.

Last month at a Donald Trump hotel-condo tower, a worker plummeted 40 stories to his death when a concrete form gave way. A month before that, a crane’s nylon sling broke away and dropped seven tons of steel onto a construction trailer across from ground zero, injuring an architect.