He saw the storm coming from his perch, nearly 300 feet above the ground.
Workers on the ground at Lexington’s City Center construction site warned Ed Dangler over the radio on the afternoon of July 20 that it looked like the approaching storm was picking up wind speed and moving fast.
Dangler, the main crane operator on the site, had to make a choice: ride out the storm in the cab of the crane or risk a lightning strike as he climbed down from one of Lexington’s tallest and smallest offices.
It takes Dangler about 20 to 30 minutes to climb down the more than 600 steps to the ground. There was no time, he decided. The storm was too fast. He would have to stay put. If lightning struck the cab and he was in his seat “he would be safe.”
The D.W. Wilburn employee “weathervaned” the crane, ensuring it would move with the wind. “You don’t want to lock a crane down in the wind, it can snap or topple,” he said.
“Once that wind started hitting, it was really the first time I was scared,” said Dangler, who has been operating tower cranes for two decades. “I called my wife. She asked me if I was okay and I told her I was scared. She said, ‘but you aren’t scared of anything.’”
If he died, he told her, he just wanted to hear her voice one more time “before I hit the ground.”
According to a gauge on the crane, the wind speed hit more than 111 kilometers, or about 70 miles per hour.
What does 70 miles per hour look like from 270 feet up in a crane swinging and rocking in the wind?
“I watched stuff blow off roofs,” Dangler said. “Trees and garbage cans fell over and people were just running for their cars.”
The Tennessee native white-knuckled it for more than an hour during the violent storm, which knocked out power to more than 50,000 people in Fayette and surrounding counties. Many television news casts had mentioned the high wind speeds recorded by the City Center crane wind gauge, “but I don’t think anybody knew I was in it.”
Dangler has been the main City Center crane operator for two years and has been operating tower cranes since 1993. The long-delayed project in downtown Lexington formerly known as CenterPointe includes a 12-story office building, a Marriott hotel and an extended stay Marriott hotel, plus restaurants and retail space.
He started his construction career as an iron worker. It was while working in Georgia on a site where there was only one crane operator but two cranes that Dangler’s crane career began. Work slowed to a crawl as construction crews had to wait for the crane operator to move from crane to crane. Frustrated, Dangler climbed into the cab of one of the cranes, figured out the controls and gave it a go.
He was good at it.
The construction superintendent was aghast. “He said, ‘I didn’t know you could run a crane,’” Dangler said. “I didn’t either.”
Dangler still works as a supervising iron worker, depending on the job. “I can do both,” he said.
He lives in Tennessee and chose the City Center job because it was close to home. Prior to coming to Kentucky, he operated tower cranes in Texas, California and several other states.
The City Center cranes are some of the tallest tower cranes he has worked in. It’s not just the height that gives wanna-be crane operators problems. Tower cranes also sway and rock in the wind.
“Sometimes it’s the motion sickness that gets to people,” Dangler said.
Depth perception is key. His job involves hooking and moving large, heavy steel beams, other building supplies and sometimes even heavy equipment. Currently, he’s working on the Marriott Residence Inn Hotel on the corner of Main and Upper streets. Prior to that, he worked on the Marriott City Center Hotel on Vine and Upper streets. Both remain under construction.
“Most of my picks were blind,” Dangler said of working on the Marriott Hotel site on Vine and Upper. That meant he had to follow commands from either a radio or hand signals from people on the ground to hook and move supplies and equipment.
“The stress level is tremendous,” Dangler said of the job. “You have to have incredible depth perception. You have to be very good with radio commands.”
Since there are blind spots, Dangler can’t always see every worker on the site.
But he can see a lot from his tiny office in the clouds.
“About six months ago, I saw the accident where a car rolled over down on Main Street,” Dangler said. “Right down on Upper and Main Street I saw that car run right into the bar. And I can see all the parades from up here.”
Dirty deeds? Yea. He’s seen a lot of that, too.
“Before they built the office building, I could also see a lot of drug deals go down in front of the public library,” Dangler said.
The 12-story office building, still under construction at Limestone and Main streets, now blocks his view of the Lexington Public Library on Main Street.
He typically starts his day around 5 a.m. and comes down at 6 p.m.
The question he gets asked most often by adults and kids alike: How does he pee?
“In a bottle,” Dangler said. “I try to go before I come to work.”
He’ll turn 57 soon. The toughest part of the job is the sitting, he said.
“There are times when I just tell them, look I got to take a break. I’ve got to stand up,” he said. “Since moving here two years ago, I think I’ve gained 20 pounds because now I am just sitting.”