A crane collapse that killed David Wichs last February was a result of human error, according to a report released this month by New York City. It’s the latest development in a bitter dispute between city officials, builders and Wichs’s widow over crane security and the city’s liability for his death.
Wichs, a trader and a member of the Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue, was walking out of a subway station in lower Manhattan when a 565-foot construction crane crashed to the ground and killed him during the onset of a winter storm. He was 38.
The city’s Department of Buildings found that the crane operator failed to secure the crane amid high winds the night before the collapse and then lowered the boom at an improper angle, causing the crane to become unstable.
“The crane operator involved in this incident acted recklessly, with tragic results,” Commissioner Rick Chandler said in a statement.
The operator’s license was suspended.
Wichs, a mathematical prodigy, was born in Communist Czechoslovakia and moved to Brooklyn with his parents as a teenager. He earned a doctorate in math from Harvard and worked as a trader at Tower Research Capital.
Wichs had just celebrated his third wedding anniversary to Rebecca Guttman, a lawyer with the firm Proskauer Rose.
In May, Guttman sued the city for $600 million. She asked for $550 million to cover what Wichs would have earned over the course of his trading career, the New York Post reported. She asked for an additional $50 million for the loss of love and companionship and for “conscious pain and suffering” that Wichs endured before he died.
At her late husband’s funeral, Guttman remembered Wichs as “the happiest person I ever met” and called their meeting a “storybook romance.”
The couple had no children. During his brother’s funeral, Daniel Wichs recalled how his brother’s biggest wish was to start a family. “That was his dream,” he said during his eulogy. “What a horrible tragedy that this dream cannot be.”
Wichs’s death touched off a race to tighten building regulations in New York. The crane that killed him toppled and flipped upside down, leaving the metal boom stretched along nearly two city blocks. It injured three other people and crushed nearby cars.
Over the weekend following the accident, the city froze all crane operations to inspect each one. In late spring, the Department of Buildings (DOB) announced stricter regulations for cranes, prohibiting all crane operations whenever winds exceed 30mph and increasing sidewalk protections for pedestrians.
“DOB is implementing these independent recommendations to make New York’s crane regulations -already the strongest in the country- even more effective,” said Buildings Commissioner Rick D. Chandler in a press release at the time.
Industry officials argue that the rules imposed by the city are crippling the building industry.
In October, a group of construction trade organizations challenged the new regulations in a suit against the Department of Buildings.
“There is no other United States, or any international, standard or regulation mandating or even suggesting that 30 mph winds necessitate special safety placement or maneuvers for crawler cranes,”they argued.
William Shuzman, executive director of the Allied Building Metal Industries, told Crain’s that many of the cranes in New York are rated for higher wind speeds. Raising and lowering the cranes frequently could create an even greater risk, he said.
Lilly Maier is a news intern at the Forward. She is a graduate journalism student at New York University, where she studies as a Fulbright scholar. She also holds a B.A. in Jewish history from the University of Munich.
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