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Originally published Sunday, March 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Enough denials; just apologize

Remember when a 210-foot-tall construction crane came crashing down in Bellevue, killing a Microsoft attorney in his apartment? That was 2 ½ years ago.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Remember when a 210-foot-tall construction crane came crashing down in Bellevue, killing a Microsoft attorney in his apartment?

That was 2 ½ years ago. A lot has been fixed up since: New safety laws were passed, damage to the crushed buildings was repaired. The 20-story black glass office tower they were building is finished and occupied.

But one thing hasn't been fixed.

"Did you know nobody has accepted any responsibility for that crane falling on my son?"

Kathy Gaberson relives that tower tipping and falling every day. How the boom arm capriciously singled out one apartment in a crowded downtown complex to crush her only child, Matthew Ammon, 31.

Also how it wasn't an accident. That it wasn't the bolt out of the blue it may have seemed to those who saw it on the news.

"It was the direct result of a series of errors — preventable errors," she said the other day from Pennsylvania, where she lives and where Ammon is buried.

"It would be nice to hear someone say, 'What we did led to your son's death, and we're very sorry for that,' " she said. "I'm not expecting it, but that's what we're after. Accountability. There's been none."

In 2007, Gaberson and her ex-husband, Larry Ammon, sued the project's general contractor, Seattle-based Lease Crutcher Lewis, and Seattle engineering firm Magnusson Klemencic Associates (MKA), blaming them for the crane's collapse.

It was the same two companies the state had cited after a six-month investigation. The state concluded the crane fell not due to wind or any external force, but because the steel base was poorly designed and not strong enough to hold the crane up.

The engineering firm, MKA, said it didn't do anything wrong and then sued a half-dozen other companies, from the welder to the crane operator. The general contractor also denied any wrongdoing and has blamed everyone from the German crane manufacturer to some consulting inspectors. Both also sued each other.

In the end, at least nine companies were sued or countersued, not counting all the insurance firms. Last week during a pretrial hearing, there were 24 jockeying, besuited lawyers in the courtroom (and no spectators, unless you count me).

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As one of them said, "that's $300 to $400 an hour, times 24. You do the math."

Now, I get that you're not supposed to admit fault right after a catastrophe like this, for insurance purposes. But 2 ½ years later? Still no one is accountable?

There is ample evidence that MKA, a famous local engineering firm that helped build Qwest Field and the Seattle Public Library, botched this crane-base job big time.

A few months ago, the state's licensing board for professional engineers and surveyors filed its own "statement of charges," moving to revoke or suspend the license of the MKA engineer who designed the crane's unusual base. The board accused him of incompetence for bad calculations, and of negligence for missing the crucial fact that the crane was supposed to be tied in to the core of the building.

The case has revealed that this crane was in trouble from the day it was set up. Ironworkers up in the tower have testified how they heard a loud bang down below at the base, then felt as if they were "falling down the stairs" as the crane shifted and swayed. Some were so shaken, they initially refused to go back up the tower.

Neither the engineer nor the general contractor suggested many changes in the days that followed (for which they each say the other is responsible). Work went on. Two months later, the crane fell, buckling at the base.

Gaberson knows all these details now. It haunts her.

"Sometimes I'll go by a tower crane, and I become paralyzed," she says. "I can't move. I can't talk. I'll get a visceral feeling, a physical pain in my body. I just wish someone had listened. I wish the very earliest warning signs had been heeded."

Why weren't they? Maybe that will come out at a jury trial, scheduled to start April 6. Based on what I heard last week, though, I doubt it.

Too much blaming the other guy.

The cost for all the damaged buildings and compensating for Ammon's lost life may reach $20 million. Lawyers in the case say MKA doesn't have that much insurance coverage, which has made settling it unusually difficult.

For a mother who has lost her son, Gaberson is remarkably charitable in her own placing of blame. She is an operating-room nurse, where mistakes also can be deadly. She says she's not interested in pointing the finger at specific people. The industry has to change or more cranes will fall.

"Mistakes are not usually because people don't care," Gaberson said. "It's some defect in the system. It's very hard to step up, to look critically at your own work. That's what I don't see happening here.

"If you're not strong enough to do that, the same errors will happen again and again."

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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