- The Big Blue crane accident on July 14, 1999 resulted in the death of three workers and caused minor injuries to five others.
- It prompted a critical look at workplace safety measures and the use of heavy machinery at construction sites.
- Despite safety measures, human error or unforeseen circumstances can lead to tragic incidents.
- The tragedy brought about a heightened awareness of the importance of safety protocols and the risks inherent in large-scale construction projects.
- Regulatory bodies like OSHA play a crucial role in ensuring workplace safety and investigating accidents.
The Ill-fated Day: An Overview of the Accident
On July 14, 1999, the construction site of the Milwaukee Brewers’ new stadium, Miller Park, became the scene of a tragic accident. A gigantic crane known as “Big Blue” – one of the world’s largest cranes and an impressive piece of machinery at 567 feet tall with a lifting capacity of 1,500 tons – suddenly toppled over while lowering a 400-ton piece of the stadium’s roof. The catastrophic event led to the untimely death of three ironworkers and caused minor injuries to five others.
The crane was a Lampson Transi-Lift 1500 Series, owned by Neil F. Lampson Inc. and leased by Mitsubishi. It earned the nickname “Big Blue” due to its remarkable size and color. Witnesses of the incident reported hearing loud creaks before the crane tipped or buckled and came crashing down.
The Victims of the Accident: Who Were They?
The three workers who tragically lost their lives in the Big Blue crane accident were Jerome Starr, 52, of Milwaukee; Jeffrey Wischer, 40, of Waukesha, Wis.; and William DeGrave, 39, of Kimberly, Wis. These men were inside a basket hanging from another crane within the bowl of the stadium when the Big Blue crane fell and struck their basket. They were preparing to attach the piece of roof that Big Blue had hoisted.
The men, equipped with safety harnesses and carrying two-way radios, found themselves in the unfortunate path of the falling crane. Fred Flowers, the main operator of Big Blue, suffered from broken hips and a shoulder when he jumped or fell from the crane’s cab, which was at least 20 feet high. Four other workers also sustained minor injuries.
Investigating the Incident: The Search for Causes
Investigators from various organizations, including city police, the Milwaukee County sheriff’s office, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the county district attorney’s office, embarked on a search for the cause of the accident. They scrutinized whether high winds, crane failure, or another unknown factor had triggered the fatal event.
Two monitoring devices recovered from the wreckage of Big Blue were designed to sound an alarm if winds became too high or if the load was misaligned. However, upon investigation, it was discovered that the batteries in these devices were dead at the time of the accident.
Ramona Starr, Jerome Starr’s wife, told the medical examiner’s office that the workers had earlier argued about the safety of lifting the massive roof piece amidst high winds. The National Weather Service reported wind gusts that day of 26 mph.
Preceding Accidents and Workplace Safety
Interestingly, OSHA investigators were already looking into two accidents that had occurred at the construction site prior to the Big Blue disaster. These incidents highlighted the looming safety concerns at the site. One worker had fallen 60 feet from the roof in May, and several workers were injured when a steel girder being lowered collided with an aerial basket in June.
The series of incidents raised important questions about workplace safety, particularly in high-risk environments like construction sites. It shed light on the critical importance of adequate and properly functioning safety measures, including effective communication equipment, safety harnesses, and hazard alarms.
Aftermath of the Accident: Lessons Learned
The Big Blue crane accident served as a poignant reminder of the risks involved in large-scale construction projects and the crucial need for stringent safety measures. It underscored the importance of proper maintenance and operation of heavy machinery, especially in adverse weather conditions.
Wayne A. Noel, director of safety at Mitsubishi and the safety superintendent of the project, ominously predicted the lasting impact of a fatal accident months before the Big Blue catastrophe. “Long after the project is built, no one will remember us,” he said. “If someone dies, they will remember that forever.”
Today, the Big Blue crane accident stands as a grim lesson in the history of construction safety. The incident resulted in a thorough reassessment of safety protocols and measures, the operation of heavy machinery, and the implementation of preventive safety measures. The victims of the accident are remembered for their sacrifice, serving as a reminder that every measure must be taken to safeguard the lives of workers in hazardous environments.
The incident also underscores the pivotal role of regulatory bodies like OSHA in ensuring safety in the workplace and conducting comprehensive investigations when accidents occur. While the disaster brought immense grief to the families of the victims, it also pushed for reform in workplace safety standards, potentially preventing similar tragedies in the future.