“I am afraid of heights,” Maples said, against all evidence to the contrary.
“If you were to ask me to go up there right now, not knowing what I know, I would probably never go up there. But because I started at such a young age, it just is second nature, and I’m just comfortable with it.”
Up there is atop the 22-ton Potain tower crane Maples uses to move the reinforcing steel, precast panels and other structural materials being shaped into what will be the 30-story Moderne apartment high-rise at W. Juneau Ave. and N. Old World 3rd St.
Perched in a mostly-glass cab attached to the city’s tallest human-occupied structure west of the Milwaukee River, Maples uses two levers, hundreds of feet of cable and his judgment to hoist multi-ton loads from the ground to the ever-rising top deck of the Moderne.
It’s muscular but delicate work. Swing a thousand-pound piece of formwork too fast or too far and someone can get killed. The federal government estimates that 89 people die each year in crane-related accidents.
“I can’t have an off-day,” Maples said.
A friendly, Harley-riding, 36-year-old father of three – he wowed his son’s Cub Scout group at a what-my-dad-does presentation – Maples has operated tower cranes for 12 years. He works for J.H. Findorff & Son Inc., general contractor on the Moderne project, and belongs to the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 139.
He makes a good living. Maples didn’t want to get specific, but said working year-round at a job like the Moderne would yield a six-figure income.
He’s been through lightning storms (“Oh yeah, all the time”) , ice storms and gale-force winds. When the wind hits 35 mph, he said, the cab starts to rattle. At 50, it shakes. Not quite four years ago, sitting atop a tower crane at the St. Mary’s hospital addition on the east side, he experienced his strongest gust: 76 mph.
“It was a day in January,” Maples said. “Remember when it got to 75 degrees and we actually had tornadoes in January? It was that day.”
He had to ride that one out aloft. You’re better off staying in the cab than trying to climb down in that kind of wind, he said.
About nine months ago, when he was just getting started on the Moderne, Maples worked through a day of late-winter rain.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” he said. “And we got done for the day, so I opened the door and stepped on the back deck and vooooot, right to my butt I went.”
A thin layer of ice sheathed the upper deck of the crane – and the more than 250 ladder rungs between Maples and the ground. That was a very slow, very careful climb down.
“White-knuckling is what I like to call it,” Maples said.
The crane was a mere 260 feet tall at the time. As the Moderne rose, the crane was raised to its current height. They call this “climbing” the crane. To do it, workers jack up the 240-foot-long horizontal jib, the turntable on which it swivels and the cab, and insert additional sections of tower.
The operator remains in the cab during such jobs, manning the controls to keep the jib balanced.
To go up to 380 feet, the crane had to be anchored to the 18th floor of the Moderne. That further secured a structure whose footings are embedded in a slab of concrete 25 feet square and 51/2 feet thick.
The steel beams that make up the tower’s gridwork are three-eighths of an inch thick, reinforced to a full inch where sections are joined with pins wider than the handle of a baseball bat.
Work in motion
But standing like a 32-story pencil jammed straight into the ground, the thing has plenty of flex.
“It was so windy this morning that when I was climbing I could feel it rocking,” Maples said earlier this week.
Depending on the load hanging from the jib, the tower bends as much as two feet forward or backward, Maples said. Looking straight down, he said, you can see it curve.
Until a few weeks ago, Maples had to climb a series of ladders – they connect platforms every 20 feet – all the way up the tower. It took him about 30 minutes each morning, he said.
Since carpenters built a bridge connecting the Moderne and the tower, Maples rides an elevator to the 18th floor and scales ladders for the remaining 200-or-so feet. That cuts his climbing time roughly in half.
“I check bolts every so often,” he said. “And then when I get up there I’ll grease anything that needs to be greased.”
His cab is heated and fitted with a computer that monitors crane activity, a two-way radio for communicating with workers on the ground, a microwave oven and a television set.
Maples might perform 75 to 100 lifts, or “picks,” each day, and there’s often down time in between. He likes the news, “The Jerry Springer Show” and “The Price is Right.”
Once he’s up there, he’s up there. He takes bathroom breaks in the privacy of the cab, using informal facilities.
Maples has binoculars and usually he can see his lift targets. If he has to pick blind, he only wants certain people on the ground crew. Laborer Craig Feinauer is his favorite.
“We get each other,” Maples said. “I know what he means by ‘left a hair.’ ”
Tower cranes are much more common in Europe and Asia than they are in the U.S., where contractors tend to use mobile crawler cranes, said Terry McGettigan, a tower crane inspector and specialist in San Diego.
Tower cranes do topple at times. But McGettigan, who maintains a library of accident photos at towercranesupport.com, said that usually happens when the cranes are being erected, dismantled or “climbed.”
“Once they’re up and they’re maintained, they very seldom will come down,” he said. Precarious as they might look with their slender towers and long jibs, the cranes stand rooted in massive blocks of concrete and balanced by counterweights.
Maples doesn’t worry much, at least not actively.
“Unless something goes horribly wrong, they’re pretty safe,” he said. “But that thought’s always in the back of your head.”
For the most part, he’s simply someone who likes his job, tries to take care to do it well and, like many of us watching from below, can appreciate the aesthetics of moving multi-ton loads from a little box nearly 400 feet above the ground.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said.