Seattle’s construction frenzy turned deadly Saturday afternoon when a tower crane working on a new Google campus fell like a thunderbolt from the roof of a South Lake Union building, smashing into six cars and killing four people.
Two ironworkers who were in the crane and two people in separate cars were dead by the time Seattle firefighters got to the site at Fairview Avenue North and Mercer Street around 3:30 p.m., fire officials said. Four others were injured.
Three of them — a 25-year-old woman and her 4-month-old daughter, and a 27-year-old man — were taken to Harborview Medical Center. Remarkably, none of them suffered life-threatening injuries, said hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg. The fourth victim was treated by medics at the scene. The mother and the baby were discharged late Saturday.
The state Department of Labor and Industries is investigating the cause of the accident, which was not known Saturday night. Several witnesses and the National Weather Service reported a storm squall with powerful gusting winds moved through the area at the time the crane was being dismantled, then toppled.
“It was terrifying,” said Esther Nelson, a biotech research assistant who was working in a building nearby and saw the crane fall from a break-room window.
“I looked up. The wind was blowing really strong,” she recalled. She saw boats struggling on Lake Union. Then the crane — she estimated it was maybe eight or nine stories high — broke in half.
“Half of it was flying down sideways on the building,” she said. “The other half fell down on the street, crossing both lanes of traffic.”
It was the first fatal tower crane collapse in more than a dozen years in the Seattle area, during a period of remarkable growth with skyscrapers sprouting up and cranes dotting the skyline. Much of that construction explosion has occurred in the South Lake Union neighborhood.
The King County Medical Examiner’s Office said it would not release the names of the fatalities — three men and a woman — until Monday.
Seattle activated its emergency operations center Saturday afternoon to coordinate the response. Police interviewed witnesses at the nearby Even Hotel.
“This is a tragic day in Seattle with this catastrophic incident in the heart of our city,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement. “My heart breaks for those who lost loved ones today, and we are praying for strength for those injured.”
Among them were Deyan Cashmere, 20, of Australia, who was in Seattle for cancer care at nearby Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He was with his father, Eric, 48, and the pair of them had noticed hours before the collapse that the crane was being dismantled. To him, it appeared to be leaning.
“I thought it was going to fall,” Deyan Cashmere said. “It was at an angle. It wasn’t standing upright.”
His father took a time-lapse video of the crane. About five minutes later, they heard a loud bang.
“We got up and said, ‘That’s the crane,’” Deyan Cashmere said.
Both he and his father have worked with cranes and machinery in Australia, and said they recognized right away the crane’s weight was not properly distributed. Police took the images from Eric Cashmere’s phone and interviewed the pair.
Corina Berriel, 27, was driving west on Mercer when the crane started falling and hit a black Nissan right behind her.
“The first thing I felt was a jolt from behind,” she said. “It almost felt like an earthquake.” She saw dust and debris falling from the sky. She thought she was about to die.
When she looked in her rearview mirror, she watched a portion of the bright yellow tower hit the car behind her. The vehicle’s rear windows and trunk were crushed but the vehicle was able to move when traffic sped up. Berriel said a woman got out of the car and ran away.
Berriel also saw a couple walking their dog flee the scene, the dog in their arms as they ran. She could see them shaking.
The bright-yellow portion of the crane that crashed to the street landed almost squarely on top of an Audi, virtually cutting the vehicle in half. That car’s occupants were the woman and child.
Alan Van Rosendael said he heard a large crash “like thunder.”
Jane Adler, who lives nearby, said it “started downpouring” and then she heard a loud crash. “I thought it was a jet fighter.” She said she saw multiple people being carried away from the scene, either dead or injured.
The building under construction was badly damaged, with several of its windows punched out by the crane. Insulation and debris could be seen through the smashed windows. A pipe hung from the roof. A section of the crane lay on top of the building.
The project at Mercer and Fairview is one of the city’s biggest construction projects — at a time, it hosted three cranes at once. It’s being built by the main developer remaking South Lake Union — the late Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate. The general contractor on project is GLY Construction, according to Vulcan.
The four-building, 607,000-square-foot project will house a new Google Seattle campus, and also include about 150 new apartments. Construction began in 2017 and is set to be finished this year. Google had put its name on the building in the last few days.
“Our deepest sympathies go out to the families who have lost loved ones and our hope is that those who have been injured return to full health as soon as possible,” Vulcan said in a statement.
Daren Konopaski, the business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 302, which represents heavy-equipment operators, said he understood the crane was being dismantled when heavy winds moved through the area.
“We don’t know, but that’s what seems to have happened here,” he said. “We are in the process of trying to get information.”
The National Weather Service said a line of showers moved over Seattle just about the time the crane fell. Meteorologist Jeff Michalski said an observation station on Lake Union showed winds kicked up from the north-northeast with gusts of up to 23 miles per hour at 3:28 p.m., just about the time officials said the crane fell.
Earlier in the day, around 2 p.m., Mike McQuaid, transportation chair of the South Lake Union Community Council, said he saw the crane being dismantled with the help of a smaller, mobile crane on the Valley Street side of the project.
“Nothing seemed out of the ordinary,” he said.
Later, after the crash, he returned again and saw two sections of the main crane lying on Mercer Street. He heard a construction worker, sobbing, saying he had just lost two of his best friends.
“My heart is broken,” McQuaid said. At the same time, he emphasized that such accidents are extremely rare. “In no way should this deter what we are doing in the community,” he said.
In November 2006, a tower crane collapsed in Bellevue, damaging three neighboring buildings and killing a Microsoft attorney who was sitting in his living room. The state Department of Labor and Industries cited two companies for workplace-safety violations following an investigation that found a flawed design for the crane’s base.
After Saturday’s collapse, McQuaid said, “We need to find out why this happened so it doesn’t happen again.”
Crane operations and safety expert James Pritchett said that while it’s too early to tell the factors involved in Seattle’s accident, tower-crane collapses are rare and usually occur due to human error.
“Whenever you’re bringing a tower crane down, my training or expertise is that it’s always got to be very low winds,” added Pritchett, CEO of Alabama-based Crane Experts International and a 35-year veteran of the industry. “It’s really a tender situation. Winds are your enemy. You need to find out beforehand what the anticipated winds are that day. In the event that high winds are occurring, you need to cease operations until they subside. Someone in supervision or management should have taken that into consideration.”
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf and staff reporters Mike Rosenberg, Mike Carter, Daniel Beekman, Lewis Kamb and Paige Cornwell contributed to this report.