NEW ORLEANS - Two giant, badly damaged construction cranes towering over a partially collapsed hotel project are to be demolished Friday with a series of controlled explosions in hopes of dropping them straight down without damaging nearby businesses and historic buildings around the site at the edge of the French Quarter.
Fire Chief Tim McConnell said work was beginning Thursday in hopes of bringing the multi-ton structures down ahead of approaching tropical weather. Forecasters said a tropical storm could form in the Gulf of Mexico and affect the area by Friday night. At a news conference, authorities said the storm was expected to move east of the city, but could still kick up stiffer winds and rain that might contribute to the cranes tumbling in dangerous directions.
"There is still a possibility of tropical storm force winds here in New Orleans," Governor John Bel Edwards said. "That is not the probability. But there is a probability that we're going to have elevated winds regardless."
McConnell described a plan involving workers suspended from another crane, moved in Thursday, to weaken the damaged construction towers with blow torches and attach explosives at key points. One of the crane towers is about 82 meters (270 feet) high, the other about 91 meters (300 feet). Both have massive cross arms adding more tonnage. Neither is stable.
"The rear tower moved four inches overnight, the one in the front moved two inches," McConnell said. "They're not designed to do that."
McConnell said an already wide evacuation area around the site would be expanded ahead of the explosion. Gas to a major utility line was being shut down and steps were being taken to protect that line and underground electrical lines that could be affected by falling debris. McConnell said the line would be severely damaged were a crane to land on it.
If the operation is successful, McConnell said, the towers will drop vertically and simultaneously. "Think of it like it's melting," he told reporters.
Experts, including firms that worked on Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to bring down damaged buildings, have been working around the clock since Saturday to devise a means of safely bringing down the cranes.
Flanking McConnell were Edwards and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. They had met with state and local emergency officials and consulted with weather forecasters prior to Thursday's news conference.
An 18-story Hard Rock Hotel under construction collapsed Saturday morning in blinding clouds of dust, killing three workers and injuring more than 20 people, one of whom was still hospitalized Thursday. Only one of three bodies in the rubble has been recovered because recovery crews have been hampered by the instability of what remains of the partially standing building.
The cause of the collapse remains unknown. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has said it will investigate.
Lawsuits are also being filed. Among the latest announced Thursday was a suit on behalf of 10 injured people filed by the law firms Morgan & Morgan and Herman, Herman & Katz LLC. The latter is known for its role as leaders of a plaintiffs committee in lawsuits against BP over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, as well as in litigation over defective Chinese drywall that caused damage in numerous homes.
Defendants include the project investors, 1031 Canal Development and Kailas Companies; Harry Baker Smith Architects; Heaslip Engineering; and main contractor Citadel Builders.
As of Thursday, none of the defendants had commented on the litigation or on the possible causes of the collapse.