“Suddenly, there are cranes all over the place again,” says Reese, sitting last week in the cab of his own 190-foot tower crane at Ninth Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW. He takes a hand off the controls to gesture at the scores of erector-set silhouettes peeking over building tops, from CityCenterDC to the National Gallery to the campus of St. Elizabeths. “They’re back up here, and so am I.”
Reese, a veteran tower crane operator, was grounded for more than a year because the recession nearly brought large-scale construction in the region to a halt. After years of back-to-back projects, he noticed the cranes disappearing from the horizon in late 2009.
“They were dropping out of the sky like somebody cutting grass,” he says.
But last fall, he got a call from Hensel Phelps Construction to do the heavy lifting for the $550 million Marriott Marquis going up next to the convention center. He climbed the ladder of a German-built Terex crane and reassumed his sky-high saddle.
“I’ve never lost my fascination with it, how it stays up here, how much it can pick up,” says the 58-year-old Reese as he tweaks the right-hand joystick on the arm of his swivel chair.
The radio hanging next to him in the glassed-in cab crackles with directions from his spotter on the ground: “Gimme another foot or so. . . . All right, hold. . . . You got two feet of slack here. . . . Okay, clear.”
Reese looks between his boots through the plexiglass floor panel. A welding tank flies over the heads of his tiny co-workers as he finesses 70,000 pounds of lifting power with flicks of his thumbs. Massive as it is, the 246-foot lattice-steel boom is a nimble extension of the operator’s reach, a slender finger plucking bits from the ground.
“We got the wind up today, which is a pain,” he declares as the tank swings to a new spot in the rising grid of steel girders. “It wants to weathervane me.”
In a city where the law holds buildings to a relatively low-rise scale, crane operators have one of the few high-rise perspectives. But the perch comes at a price. The day begins with a 15-minute climb up a rough rebar ladder, which can be covered in ice or bird poop, depending on the season. (Reese left in place the Santa Claus that someone tied on the crane last December because it makes a decent scarecrow.) The latrine is an empty Clorox bottle, and you have to hope that every passing pilot gets a good look at the blinking red light above the cab.
On this day, the particular hassle is the wind. The cab, little bigger than a phone booth, sways with every gust. When the wind is too high, Reese will stop work and let the gale point the crane where it wants, rather than have it twist the whole tower free of its moorings. Three times, his cranes have been struck by lightning, showers of sparks cascading down as Reese waited it out with his feet pulled up in his seat, the hair on his arm standing up.