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Halifax tower crane ‘malfunctioned’ four months before collapse: redacted engineer’s report

Downed Halifax crane malfunctioned months before storm: documents
Documents obtained by Global News reveal the downed Halifax crane malfunctioned months before the storm in September last year. Elizabeth McSheffrey reports.

Nearly four months after a crane collapsed over two buildings in downtown Halifax, the Nova Scotia government is concealing documents related to the multimillion-dollar disaster that put public safety at risk.

On Sept. 24, the government received a report on the cause of the collapse amid post-tropical storm Dorian’s 120 km/h wind gusts.

The province says that the documents, obtained by Global News under Freedom of Information legislation, make up a preliminary report only and does not provide a root cause of the failure. However, details of the report’s findings have been almost entirely redacted.

The documents do reveal that the tower crane was certified by an engineer and the work site was visited by a Department of Labour occupational health and safety officer before the storm arrived.

Hurricane Dorian: Video captures moment crane collapses in downtown Halifax during storm
Hurricane Dorian: Video captures moment crane collapses in downtown Halifax during storm

A report prepared by BMR Structural Engineering also reveals that the tower crane, owned by Lead Structural Formwork Ltd., was modified in May and June of 2019 after a malfunction.

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“The turntable of the crane originally erected at the site malfunctioned in May 2019.  At that time, the top kit of the original crane was removed and a new top kit from a different crane was installed,” the report reads.

“BMR designed a transition section near the top of the mast to allow the alternate top kit to be installed on the mast of the original crane, which remained on site. BMR was only responsible for the design of the transition section. APA Inc. reviewed the overall stability, load carrying capacity, etc. of the ‘hybrid’ crane.”

It is unclear whether the malfunction has anything to do with the collapse in September. The crane was certified by engineers in June.

READ MORE: Removing crane downed in Halifax during Dorian cost $2 million: minister

Aside from section titles, nearly every word is redacted from the report including more than one full page that deals with “reasons for collapse.”

The province has withheld the information, citing sections of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) Act that include protecting the right to a fair trial, preventing harm to law enforcement and advice to a public body or minister.

In a statement on Jan. 3, a spokesperson for the Department of Labour said the investigation into the crane collapse is ongoing and the department cannot speculate on the outcome.

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Halifax Regional Police say there is no criminal investigation underway.

Evacuees left in the dark after Halifax crane collapse
Evacuees left in the dark after Halifax crane collapse

Businesses and residents are pursuing a class-action lawsuit against W.M. Fares Architects Inc., W. M. Fares & Associates Incorporated, Lead Structural Formwork Limited and The ManitoWoc Company Inc.

The government has not said whether it plans to go to court to recover the approximately $2 million cost of removing the crane and cleaning up the site. Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines said in late November that legal action is possible.

On Nov. 4, Harold Carroll, the Department of Labour’s executive director of occupational health and safety, told reporters that the province will examine the pieces of the removed crane, and a summary report is being prepared.

Labour Minister Labi Kousoulis was not made available to answer questions about the investigation or the report.

Crews remove the final pieces of a crane that collapsed onto a building in Halifax during post-tropical storm Dorian.
Crews remove the final pieces of a crane that collapsed onto a building in Halifax during post-tropical storm Dorian. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nova Scotia Government

Preparing for the storm

On Sept. 5 and 6, as Nova Scotians prepared for the arrival of hurricane Dorian, the province was preparing construction sites across Halifax.

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The more than 500 pages of documents obtained by Global News show that provincial officials drafted a letter to stakeholders, stressing the importance of taking additional measures to ensure safety. It asks tower crane operators to ensure their cranes are able to turn freely in the wind.

“If the crane jib is restricted from moving with the wind, the stresses imposed on the tower structure caused by the wind loads put on the jib could potentially exceed the dynamic loading design limits of the tower, resulting in a dangerous situation that could lead to catastrophic failure,” the unsigned letter reads.

READ MORE: Last piece of collapsed crane removed from Halifax building

An email from the regional director of occupational health and safety to occupational health and safety officers asks them to take proactive measures with developers at sites with tower cranes.

“Can you please visit the areas with tower cranes, e.g. downtown, Larry Uteck area, etc., even if these are not your assigned areas, and speak with developers and construction workers about overhead crane safety and high winds,” Robin Angel wrote on Sept. 5.

“A tower crane is able to ‘paravane’ or ‘weathervane’ to move freely in the wind and some members of the public may be concerned about this phenomenon.”

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Occupational health and safety officer Trevor Routledge “performed a focused inspection” of worksites on South Park Street and Dresden Row the next day.

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During the inspection, the supervisor reported to Routledge that the tower crane would be prepared for the storm with rigging material removed, the crane placed in weather vane mode and the hook placed in the stowed position. Routledge’s report stated that no further action would be taken.

The crane came down at about 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 7.

N.S. government lifts localized state of emergency following removal of collapsed crane
N.S. government lifts localized state of emergency following removal of collapsed crane

Safety concerns after the collapse

The documents also reveal significant safety concerns at the site of the collapse in the days following the storm. On Sept. 24, while inside the Brenton Street building where the crane collapsed, occupational health and safety officer Ron Buchanan reported that there was “movement in the tower section” of the crane.

Buchanan wrote in an email that afternoon that while inside the building, “suddenly there were three high pitch (sic) squeals like metal on metal and the floor shook. I immediately evacuated.”

He went on to say that it appeared the crane bent and dropped, and was nearly touching the Trillium Building. But Buchanan advised that the public not be informed this was happening.

“For now this information is not being shared with anyone until it is reassessed and we will look at it without drawing attention,” he wrote.

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Work crews begin dismantling pieces of the toppled crane.
Work crews begin dismantling pieces of the toppled crane. Alexander Quon/Global News

The next day, Buchanan’s update included plans for a detailed media tour of the site.

“The plan is to take them in to South Park Street in the fenced area but in the safe zone so they may see up close the jib of the crane which is suspended from the Olympus Building, take them in the basement of the W.M. Fares Building so they may see the base where the tower failed and to the 14th floor of the Trillium deck so they may overlook the top of the Olympus Building where the turntable and cabin have come to rest,” he wrote.

The tour never happened.

On Sept. 30, the Department of Labour sent out its technical safety division to do crane compliance audits at 27 worksites.