Hard Rock Hotel collapse: Work starts to bring down cranes before coming storm

Andrew J. Yawn, Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Since the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel construction site on the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans, two cranes have stood unsupported and threatening to fall onto surrounding historic buildings.

Those 300-foot cranes must come down Friday, a deadline to remove the threat that has been accelerated by the prospect of a tropical system forecast to bring gusty storm winds to the area.

"The impetus is this weather coming in. We want to be in control of how this happens. We don't want this to fall on its own and cause damage to this critical infrastructure," said New Orleans Fire Chief Tim McConnell. 

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Crews began working Thursday to place small explosive charges at certain points on the crane. On Friday, firefighters will knock on doors and expand the evacuation zone before the proverbial fuse is lit on a dangerous but necessary operation. 

Two unstable cranes loom over the New Orleans Hard Rock Hotel, which collapsed last Saturday, killing three workers. Authorities say explosives will be strategically placed on the cranes in hopes of bringing them down with a series of small, controlled blasts ahead of approaching tropical weather.

"We have concerns about how the weather may impact the operation here and the stability of the two cranes," said Gov. John Bel Edwards, who was visiting the site Thursday. "So we are working as hard as we can on a timeline to have those two towers taken down safely before the winds would be able to cause those cranes potentially to fall and do more damage."

The cranes are moving, and 'they're not designed to do that'

The collapse killed three people, two of whom authorities have been unable to remove from the rubble. 

In the days since the collapse, the damaged cranes have shown concerning amounts of movement. A day after the rear crane tower moved 1 inch, it moved 4 inches overnight Wednesday.

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"They're not designed to do that," McConnell said.

At the top of the crane towers is a 145,000-pound cross beam. Small explosives placed at the supports are hoped to allow the cross beam to fold downward on either side, and explosives up and down the tower itself will break it down while keeping it within the construction site. Parts of the cranes are also being manually cut. 

This aerial photo shows the Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans, which was under construction, after a fatal partial collapse Oct. 12, 2019.

"Small explosives will damage the crane in a very methodical way to bring it down in an exact location is the goal. Obviously, something like this is not an exact science. You can't practice this," McConnell said. 

The storm might miss New Orleans, but there are other challenges

The good news for New Orleans is the tropical system aiming for the Gulf Coast is not expected to have much impact on the city, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Michael Hill. Although there's a 90% chance it could develop into a tropical depression or tropical storm, current models have the storm glancing eastward toward Pensacola, Florida. 

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Between Friday evening and Saturday morning, New Orleans may see winds as high as 20-30 mph and less than 1 inch of rain. 

"Right now we’re on a favorable track," Hill said. "This should be a minor event and mostly miss us."

New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards address reporters near the Hard Rock Hotel Oct. 17, 2019, in New Orleans. The 18-story hotel project that was under construction collapsed last Saturday, killing three workers. Two bodies remain in the wreckage.

Beyond the weather, there are still significant challenges to navigate. Workers were being put into the air to place charges as the winds continue pick up. The city is working to protect the main gas and power lines for the French Quarter, which are in close proximity to the site. The demolition of the cranes is also being planned in a way to avoid the sites where the two deceased workers are thought to be, so they can be removed later.

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But McConnell was optimistic that the demolition would be successful. Since the catastrophic collapse last Saturday, he has touted the engineers and demolition experts who have been brought in for consultation, some of whom worked to stabilize the buildings around the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

"A very, very high probability that they will come down exactly as these engineers are designing it," McConnell said. "When people look back at who we brought in and the experience they have, you will not have somebody else you can say, 'Oh, why didn't you bring in Jones?' … I truly believe we have the best engineers, demolition contractors."

The Saenger Theater sign is seen in the foreground of the damaged Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans. The 18-story hotel project that was under construction collapsed last Saturday, killing three workers. Two bodies remain in the wreckage.

News tips? Questions? Call reporter Andrew Yawn at 985-285-7689 or email him at ayawn@gannett.com. 

This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: Hard Rock Hotel New Orleans: Crews work to remove cranes before storm