David Wichs’ remarkable life of achievement and Jewish compassion started in Communist Czechoslovakia 38 years ago.
He came to Brooklyn with his parents, earned a doctorate in math from Harvard and lived in a brownstone on the Upper West Side. He just celebrated his third wedding anniversary.
It all ended in a flash on a blustery snowy morning in Manhattan’s plush Tribeca neighborhood when a 565-foot construction crane collapsed and crushed him Friday as he walked from the subway to his job at a financial trading firm.
“It’s a terrible tragedy to lose such a young man like him,” Rabbi Elie Weinstock told the the New York Daily News. “Right now it’s just too much to process.”
Another rabbi interviewed as he was leaving Wichs’ apartment building told The News Wichs that was “an absolute angel.”
His sister-in-law, Lisa Guttman, praised Wichs’ ambition and drive in a tearful interview with The Associated Press on Friday.
“He really created a life for himself,” she said. “He literally took every opportunity he could find.”
The crane collapsed in lower Manhattan during a swirling snowstorm. Besides Wichs, it injuring three others and crushed cars parked in the street.
Hundreds of emergency workers responded after the giant crane toppled at about 8:30 a.m. and flipped upside down, leaving the metal boom stretched along nearly two city blocks.
At the time, workers were lowering the crane to secure it as winds approached 25 miles per hour, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference.
Wichs, who worked at the computerized financial trading firm Tower Research Capital nearby, had apparently just emerged from the No. 1 subway train on his way to the office when he was struck by the crane.
It would be hard to imagine a more stunning end to a more inspirational short life.
Wichs grew up in Prague, where his family struggled to keep alive their Jewish traditions in a community decimated by the Holocaust and decades of Communism.
Even as an 11-year-old boy, he described fending off anti-Semitism on a school trip to then-East Germany. He was featured in ‘A Tree Still Stands’ a book about Jewish children in Eastern Europe when the contininent was still divided by the Iron Curtain.
“When I have children I don’t think there will be a Jewish community here in Prague,” he told an interviewer. “I hope there will be, but many people want to leave the country and there are not so many of us.”
The precocious child immigrated to the United States and his parents settled in Brooklyn. He was an over-achiever at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, where he was named a 1995 semifinalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, the New York Times reported.
He attended Harvard University, where he graduated with a degree in mathematics. While at Harvard, he served as co-chair of a men’s group under the auspices of the campus Hillel.
Wichs was an active member of Kehilath Jeshurun, a Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper East Side, and lived on West 81st St. with his wife, Rebecca Guttman, a lawywer with heavy-hitting firm Proskauer Rose. The couple just celebrated their third wedding anniversary on January 20.
Wichs is listed as a donor on the websites and publications of numerous charities, both Jewish and secular, including Avodah, Mazon and Teach for America.
An unidentified employee at Bay Crane, which manufactured the crane, told The AP an investigation of the collapse was underway.
The crane had been used since Jan. 30 at 60 Hudson Street, a landmark once known as the Western Union building. Workers were replacing generators and air conditioning equipment on the roof, officials said. The building is a major hub for telecommunications companies.
De Blasio said inspectors had visited the site on Thursday and recorded no safety concerns.
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer issued a statement on Friday criticizing the buildings department for not implementing certain safety improvements.
“Crane safety is a crisis, but the city has not treated it like one,” Stringer said.
A buildings department spokesman disputed Stringer’s assertions and said there is “more oversight of cranes in place than ever before.”
The “crawler crane” that fell is among 376 used in construction in New York City. Another 53 taller “tower cranes” are also being operated in the city.
After Friday’s collapse, the city ordered all cranes to be shut down and secured due to the wind.
Witnesses described a deafening boom as the crane crashed to the street a few blocks from City Hall and a half-mile from the World Trade Center site.
Nicholi White, 20, who works for online grocer Fresh Direct, said he was waiting to deliver boxes when he saw it fall.
“When the crane hit the ground, I heard a loud bang, it sounded like a bomb,” he said. “One of the loudest sounds I heard in my life.”
A woman who was having her hair done at a nearby salon in preparation for her wedding at City Hall was escorted to the ceremony after the collapse by a fire department chaplain.
Four buildings were damaged, city officials said. They said they were also monitoring multiple gas leaks, none of which had risen to dangerous levels.
Wichs worked at financial trading firm Tower Research Capital in New York. A woman who answered the phone there declined to give her name but said the office staff was “deeply saddened.” She called Wichs a wonderful person.
Officials said Friday’s incident was the first fatal crane collapse involving a city-inspected crane since 2008. That year, nine people were killed in two separate collapses, prompting officials to impose stricter regulations on the industry.
In 2012, a construction crane partially collapsed on top of a nearly completed, 90-story apartment building during high winds brought by Superstorm Sandy. In 2013, a crane collapsed in Queens, injuring seven.
Last May, a cable on a construction crane also owned by Bay Crane snapped at a high-rise office building in Midtown Manhattan as it lifted an air conditioning unit. The unit plunged nearly 30 stories, injuring 10 people.
With JTA and Reuters