Move a gloved hand up one rung, then step your boot up. Repeat for 180 feet, up of the tower crane cage's steep ladder. Only bare steel guard rails — not a snap hook — keep the vertigo from tipping you off and down, down, down. Climbing higher than the roof of the construction site, with a ways to still go up, is when it starts to really feel like standing on a pin above the city at drone height.
This is how crane operator Shawn Whitman begins his day at 4:30 a.m. before the sun rises, at the site of the Knight Cancer Research Building in the South Waterfront district.
The KCRB topped out its concrete layers earlier this month, and on Aug. 31, the red crane will come down. Whitman operates the shorter blue crane here, which went up nearly a year ago.
Last week, his various duties included flying iron beams, arranged in rows on the ground, up to the roof for installation. The week before, he had unloaded all the beams from six iron trucks and laid them out organized by size.
Tricks of the trade handed down by word of mouth keep safety and speed prioritized.
"When you're learning to run a crane, I had a guy tell me years ago — he said his dad told him years ago — he says you run smooth and speed will come, and that's true," Whitman told the Business Tribune. "A lot of guys, they want it fast, fast, fast, get it down there. I'll push it a little bit — it's not that I can't run a crane fast — it's that smooth is fast. The smoother you run it, the faster you'll get."
It's a job only 25 have in the city of Portland right now — and the city has the fifth-most tower cranes in the nation up this year.
Training to operate
Whitman grew up in Medford, and started college hoping to become an elementary schoolteacher. Growing up a straight-A student, he took a break from college when he broke his streak.
"I took a break, had an opportunity to go run sound for a music ministry group — I still do that at our church — then I came back and worked at a car wash," Whitman said. "The guy I worked for did a little bit of everything and then he ran a crane. Then I started running equipment and liked it, and started running cranes and really liked it."
He thought about going back to school to become a sound engineer, but realized in the skilled trades he'd be able to skip paying back student loans.
"Down in Southern Oregon it's a good place to grow up, but ... you don't make as much down there, it's a different type of economy," Whitman said. "There were just no opportunities down there so I came up here and started doing some looking-around — my wife's from up here, Oregon City."
His first big-city gig was a project in Vancouver, Washington for Deacon construction, where he earned enough experience to get in the union. He transferred to Campbell Crane & Rigging services (now NessCampbell after a merger) and worked there for seven years.
Whitman worked in mobile crane rentals, which sometimes (especially during downturns) meant night shifts.
"I got to work a shift at night and have the next day off, so you can get up and take the kids to school and have lunch with your wife — at least, that's what I did. Lots of guys went fishing," Whitman said. "After 9/11 (work) just got really spotty, so I got the chance to go to a tunnel job, a pump station over on Swan Island. I felt very blessed when a lot of guys were really struggling — we were working a minimum of 45-50 hours a week."
This was the first place Whitman got into a tower crane.
"I was very fortunate: my friend was running a tower — Joe McCarthy — and at lunchtime I'd scurry up the tower, get a little bit of seat time just playing at lunch," Whitman said. "Then they had to have somebody, and there was nobody else, so I got an opportunity."
A day in the life
"As an operator in general — not just being up here but running mobile cranes also — I like the problem-solving because most days are different — especially with crane rental, it's always different," Whitman said. "One day you're picking a tree, the next day you're picking an air unit. One day it's 20 feet from you, the next day it's 200 feet from you."
Operating mobile cranes on the ground, which Whitman sometimes does on a rental basis, has similarities and differences from operating the boom crane at the KCRB. On the Fourth of July, he got a call to remove a burning tree from a field before the rest caught fire.
"I like the idea of trying to figure out how am I going to get that crane into that spot it's not supposed to fit," Whitman said. "I've got to find a way to get it cocked in there sideways so it'll fit, but I've still got to be able to unload that truck."
On an Intel site he formerly worked at, he had to take the door off the hinges of a carry deck crane to fit down an alleyway, or else he would've been pinned inside, unable to see, roasting with no air conditioning.
"Here, the challenge is just making that hook nice and smooth, and handing those guys those chains so that they're not diving out of the way, trying to be as smooth as you can as far as I'm concerned — because smooth is fast," Whitman said.
Sometimes, when the work is directly beneath the glass cabin, Whitman has to stand on the bent glass underfoot and look back to see where he's aiming.
"I may stand up as I'm swinging and look to see where the connectors are when it comes to iron," Whitman said. "You have your display, but not all of them have that."
The blue crane is brand new, so it has a screen showing the distances up from the ground and out to the boom.
"Let's say you know that this panel is 122 feet. You may bring it in at 118 feet. You can look, and you're watching the display but you're watching those guys," Whitman said. "You get on the tagline, you get it to 115 feet, you've got that stair tower there so now you're coming down, you're still trollying out or booming down if you're in a boom, and you're handing them that and they're talking to you on the radio usually, too — it's a team effort, for lack of a cheesier term."
In theory, they give him hand signals and radio signals, but sometimes if their hands are busy they might nod or shake.
"Iron workers a lot of times, when they're pulling an iron beam out of the pile there, they may need to be able to hang on to the piece so it doesn't knock the other pieces off, which could potentially roll and break their leg," Whitman said. "Sometimes you have that split second with that iron beam, what they'll usually do is you pick up on it to hold down on one end, then they'll move the other end to get it up out of the iron. It's not life or death, but it could be injury to them if you just ripped them up out of the pile."
The biggest challenge Whitman faces is a windy day.
"In a tower crane, you can't say oh, I'm done or turn that down," Whitman said. "Sometimes you have to be the bad guy, you have to say we can't pull that."
The huge wall panels are 18 feet tall by 40 feet long, a dangerous weight to move above workers' heads.
"That's big, that's got a lot of sail factor. So when the wind hits it, it starts spinning, it gets moved around," Whitman said. "These are situations we've all had happen: you find yourself almost not being able to stop, or you've got to really horse a crane to get it to stop because the wind's pushing that load and that load is a giant sail, it's pulling you."
The crane itself can twist and torque, and could catch and tangle its own taglines.
"You've got to make the right decisions, or make decisions like getting right next to the building, get some long taglines and take it right up the edge of the building until it just clears the handrail, and use the building as a shield," Whitman said. "As soon as it clears the handrail you swing a little bit and those guys grab it. Instead of taking it up, having it out here in front, you limit your exposure. That's a trick somebody else told me."
Whitman doesn't come down until both cranes are done for the day — otherwise, one might swing into the other — working an 11 to 12 hour day.
By Jules Rogers
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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