For crane operator, job's an adrenaline lift
"It's like playing a giant video game with the joysticks"
Monday, March 05, 2007
It took time, but J.J. Sisson eventually worked his way all the way up the ladder at Hoffman Construction Co. At present, that's a 325-foot daily climb to his perch operating the tallest tower crane at Portland's South Waterfront.
It's not for the fainthearted.
There's the daily climb -- rain, sleet or shine. Once he arrives at the office, he's alone, all day, in a noisy cab that can be frigidly cold or baking hot, depending on the season, and sways like a carnival ride in heavy weather.
"It can get scary," Sisson said. "When the wind gets up to 60, I want to be on the ground."
Usually, anything more than 35 mph gusts put Sisson into "weathervane mode," swinging with the wind. Even in the calmest conditions, it's exacting, high-stress work.
High-rise construction is crane dependent. Whether he's "flying" cement, rebar, girders or 6,000-pound wall panels, he has to be smooth and efficient. Hand-eye coordination is a prerequisite, though Sisson is often operating blind, relying on his deft touch at the controls and radioed instructions from the ground. When the schedule is tight, days can stretch from well before dawn until after dark.
"Once you get good at it, it's like playing a giant video game with the joysticks," Sisson said. But "when you got all these guys moving right under your hook, there's no room for mistakes."
Accidents do happen -- in November, a 210-foot tall construction crane toppled over in Bellevue -- so Sisson spends plenty of time inspecting his rig.
"I'm the one who has to ride it down," he said, "and I don't want to do that."
An Oklahoma native, Sisson worked as a roughneck on an oil rig in Oklahoma from the age of 16 before moving offshore at 21. When oil patch jobs dried up in the late '80s, he moved to a shipyard in Portland.
After jumping to Hoffman Construction in 1996, he started out on the ground level as a carpenter, then worked his way though a succession of jobs operating forklifts, elevators and boom trucks. After bugging his bosses, networking with the crane operators, and getting the necessary training and certification, he finally got his shot to operate the big rig.
His wife and friends sometimes think he's nuts. But he loves the work.
"I get bored easily," Sisson said. "I've always had intense jobs. I need something that's got adrenaline to it."
Ted Sickinger: 503-221-8505; firstname.lastname@example.org