NEW YORK - Rescuers dug through debris in search of three people still missing yesterday, a day after a construction crane crashed down in a Manhattan neighborhood, killing at least four people and damaging or demolishing six buildings.
"We're still calling it a search operation," said Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, who joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other officials at the scene of Saturday's accident. But "with each passing hour, things get a little more grim."
Crews yesterday removed a 25-foot section of the white crane that broke into pieces, and had about 180 feet left to remove piece by piece, along with piles of debris from the damaged buildings.
Two other construction workers and a woman who was staying in an apartment at a brownstone are missing, the mayor said. "So far, we've not found any of them," he said.
Twenty-four others were injured, including 11 first responders, Bloomberg said. Eight remained hospitalized yesterday, officials said. Killed were workers Wayne Bleidner, 51, of Pelham; Brad Cohen, no age or address available; Anthony Mazza, 39; and Aaron Stephens, 45, of New York City, police said.
The missing woman had come from Miami to celebrate St. Patrick's Day and visit a friend who lived in the brownstone, said John LeGreco, owner of Fubar, a tavern on the ground floor. The woman was in her friend's second-floor apartment at the time of the collapse, he said. Her friend was rescued, he said.
The crane was attached to an apartment tower under construction on East 51st Street east of Second Avenue when it broke away from its anchors Saturday and toppled south, crashing into buildings on 51st and 50th streets.
Next to the destroyed brownstone, a six-story apartment building at 50th Street and Second Avenue was missing an upper corner, as though a giant had clawed it. Dusty furniture and paintings were visible from the street.
City officials said the broken crane was inspected Friday. The crane was being lengthened with a new section, a process known as "jumping," when it fell.
Bloomberg said investigators were looking at either mechanical failure or "perhaps human error" as a cause of the accident.
"As far as we can tell, all procedures that were called for were being followed," the mayor added.
He said that about 250 cranes are operating in the city on any given day, and the accident should not alarm New Yorkers living near high-rise construction sites.
"Do I think that you should worry if there's a crane across the street? No," Bloomberg said. "This is such a rare thing that I don't think we should worry about it."
The city had issued 13 violations in the past 27 months to the construction site where a 43-story high-rise condominium was going up. "Every large construction site has violations," Bloomberg said.
But neighbors complained yesterday that the crane had never seemed stable.
"I warned the Buildings Department on March 4 that it was not sufficiently braced against the building," said Bruce Silberblatt, a retired contractor and vice president of the Turtle Bay Neighborhood Association.
"I don't think anyone was surprised," said Miggie Bryan, who lives east of the crash scene. "We've all been walking by it with our hearts in our mouths."
John Viscardi, whose mother and stepfather owned the destroyed townhouse, said his family had said the crane appeared unstable and "shoddy."
Kerry Walker, a retired ironworker and Viscardi's stepfather, "knows all about cranes and said this one had no braces, everything is too minimal," Viscardi said.
Yesterday, the Reliance Construction Group, the project's contractor released a statement expressing sympathy to the families of the dead and injured and said it was cooperating with government investigators.
"We have already launched our own internal investigation to understand exactly what caused this tragedy," the company said.
Reliance said it had subcontracted different parts of the job and that New York Crane owned the crane. A telephone message left with New York Crane yesterday wasn't returned.
Timing was everything for some of the survivors.
Walker and his wife, Jean Squeri, had left had their top-floor apartment just minutes before the crane toppled on it, reducing the 19th-century building to a pile of rubble.
Squeri, 74, who works in an administrative office at Manhattan's Hunter College, was on her way to a nearby drugstore when she heard the noise. The four-story building, owned by her family for 80 years, disappeared in a cloud of yellow smoke and dust.