Rincon Hill from the top
Moving up in San Francisco: The Transamerica Pyramid is higher at 853 feet -- but even now, with the tower still not finished, every other building north of Los Angeles is lower
Carl Nolte, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007
Vincente Roman, project engineer for Bovis Lend Lease, the contractor, walks along the top of the giant crane used on One Rincon Hill in San Francisco
Jaimie Rubio uses a joystick-like control in the crane to maneuver large building materials into place for workers far below
Crane operator Jaimie Rubio inside the small control cab; he says he has trained himself to use the bathroom as little as possible
Jaimie Rubio, who is 54 years old, does the heavy lifting for One Rincon Hill, the $290 million project that will be the tallest residential building in the West when it is completed next year.
Rubio is one of two tower-crane operators working for Bovis Lend Lease, the principal contractor at One Rincon. He works in a tiny enclosed cab, smaller than an office workstation, at the top of the crane, virtually at the top of San Francisco.
His blue-and-yellow crane stands next to the One Rincon tower and above it, like a giant mechanical bird hovering over the steel and concrete construction site.
The One Rincon tower is more than 500 feet high now, counting the concrete core that was built first. When it is finished, the top of the 60-story building will be 641 feet high. It will be a landmark tower, right next to the Bay Bridge, and a monument to the men and women who built it.
Julie Ann Linsley, who runs one of the elevators -- called hoists -- says she can see the tower from her home in Oakland. "It looks cool,'' she says, "It looks exhilarating. There's a lot of energy on this job."
To get to his workplace, Rubio rides a hoist attached to the outside of the building. He gets off at the 30th floor, then climbs over some piping and crosses to a plank a dozen feet long to the open steel frame of the crane. A series of ladders leads straight up.
Then he climbs, hand over hand, up 24 rungs of a steel ladder, to a platform. There are seven more platforms, 192 rungs on the ladders in all. At the top is a shorter ladder leading to the spot where the crane's arm pivots. Here the operator must scramble up over the steel pivoting mechanism to the top, to the crane's arm and control cab. Below is nothing but air and the cold wind of late winter. The view is breathtaking.
The city is at his feet. The towers of the Bay Bridge, 526 feet above the bay surface, look like scale models. The other high-rises of San Francisco are off to the north. He can almost look the massive, dark brown Bank of America building in the eye. The Transamerica Pyramid is higher at 853 feet, but every other building north of Los Angeles is lower.
Up here, the world is bounded on the east by Mount Diablo, capped with snow, and the Farallon Islands, 27 miles out in the Pacific. From his perch, 659 feet above the top of Rincon Hill, 759 feet above sea level, Rubio can see the curvature of the Earth.
"Don't look down at the top of the tower, whatever you do,'' he tells a visitor to his aerie, nodding toward the tallest part of the building under construction, nearly a hundred feet below his perch. "It'll scare the s -- out of you.''
The top of the tower, now about 540 feet above First Street, is what he's there for. The crane's job is to move steel and concrete forms from the ground up to the top of the tower, where the work is going on. The crane operator essentially runs a winch that pulls a cable traveling on a trolley arrangement over a long arm.
The whole arm can swivel; there is hook at the end of the cable to pick up loads, a winch and a motor at the other end with a counterweight.
This crane has a capacity of 31,00o pounds at the tip of the crane arm, 35,800 pounds with the load positioned closer to the center of the crane.
The crane can be jacked up as high as is necessary -- as the building moves higher, the crane moves up with it. These cranes were invented in Germany in 1949; the technical name for them in German is turmdrehkran.
One man, guided via radio by workers stationed below, runs the whole rig.
It takes timing, skill and experience to run the crane. Every operator has to be certified by the state; the candidate has to take a course in operating the crane, then pass a written test. "You have to develop an experience with loads and how to handle them,'' Rubio says, "but it is more about experience than knowing the physics of it.'' You have to have a feel, he says, you have to know what you are doing.
It is a key job: Bay Area crane operators belong to Local 3 of the Operating Engineers, who say minium pay scale is about $38 an hour, plus overtime and benefits. Good crane operators are much sought-after, and some are paid over scale.
Rubio deflects questions about pay. "It's a living,'' he says.
He points to the men working below -- a group of iron workers setting up re-enforcing steel bars to receive a pour of concrete. The ironworkers, who climb on the steel like circus acrobats, are called "rod busters."
Rubio moves the crane slowly, swinging it so the arm moves counterclockwise, swinging concrete forms onto the top of the tower and moving them into place. He operates the crane from a high-backed leather swivel chair, using two joysticks.
"They are the ones who do all the work,'' Rubio says, nodding at the workers far below. "I just pull the joystick. I follow their orders.''
That might be true, but others say the crane operator has a big role. "Everything rotates around them,'' says Gary De Renzi, one of the business agents for Local 3. "There's no break up there.''
The operator is paid an hour of travel time -- half an hour up the ladder and half an hour down. There is no latrine high in the sky; bottles do the job.
Rubio has no one looking over his shoulder, so he wears a Giants T-shirt and moccasins instead of the steel-toe shoes common on construction jobs. A small wooden shelf is built into a corner of the tiny cab, where he keeps a newspaper to read during slow parts of the day. It is like the nest of an eagle up there.
"Comfort is the name of the game,'' he says.
The main problem is wind. "Nothing stops me but the wind,'' he says. State rules say tower cranes can't be operated in steady wind of more than 35 mph, and Rubio says he had something like that on Tuesday, with rain. One gust, he says, got up to 59.6 mph on his wind gauge. "As soon as I landed the load, I rolled it up and called down. I said, "See ya.''
There is always danger moving heavy loads with mechanical equipment. Rubio hasn't had an accident on the One Rincon job, but when he was working a tower crane building the W hotel at Third and Howard streets in 1998, he had a bad accident.
"I had 19,300 pounds on the load, and as I was moving it up, I heard this big loud pop -- POW! -- and it started to go down.''
The axle on the winch had broken, and the cable was uncontrollable. "I'm like, 'Oh, my God!' You know the expression, you see your whole life go before your eyes? Well, it's true.''
The load, the whole 19,300 pounds, roared down, hit the roof of the firehouse next door and went right through into the sleeping quarters of the firehouse. "I thought I'd wiped out a whole company of firemen." Rubio says. As it turned out, the firehouse was empty. Nobody was hurt.
But Rubio still sees that ruined firehouse -- "a mark like a cookie-cutter in the roof,'' he says, and hears the crack of the winch breaking.
"Want to see what the winch looks like?'' he asked a visitor, then leads him out of the cab, onto a steel mesh catwalk 650 feet above First and Harrison streets.
"Don't look down,'' he says.
One in an occasional series on the construction of a high-rise on San Francisco's Rincon Hill. For additional photos and previous stories about One Rincon, go to sfgate.com/Rincon.