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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 17, 2009

Tower falls, killing worker

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A man was found dead when this cooling tower collapsed.

Photos by REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Honolulu Fire Department personnel monitored the search mission after the tower collapse.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Everything was in place for the clean demolition of a 120-foot cooling tower at Campbell Industrial Park.

The area around the tower had been cleared of all but two workers, and heavy equipment attached to the tower with cables was set to pull the structure down. All that remained was for the two men inside to finish their work and get out.

That's when the tower groaned, snapped and suddenly collapsed, leaving tons of rusting, twisted metal in an unstable heap.

Only one worker made it out.

The other was found dead in the rubble about 3:15 p.m. yesterday, seven hours after the tower collapsed about 8 a.m., according to Capt. Robert Main, spokesman for the Honolulu Fire Department.

"He did not survive," said Main, who said earlier reports that the worker had made it out and then went back inside the structure were inaccurate.

"He didn't make it out. He may have got hung up on something, or for some reason he may have gotten turned around. But he didn't make it out."

At 3:30 p.m. paramedics pronounced the man, who was in his 50s, dead.

Main said the two men in the tower when it collapsed were Mainland employees of A.G. Transport of California, specialists in industrial demolition, and working locally with San Construction of Hawaii. The victim's name had not been released last night by the Honolulu Medical Examiner's office.

By 4 p.m., an investigator with the Occupational Safety and Health Division of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations was on the scene investigating the tower collapse.

Bill Brennan, city spokesman, said a city permit is required to demolish a building.

"The city will determine on Monday whether a permit was issued," he said.

The tower is owned by Hawaiian Cement. Main said the company, which operates a quarry in Halawa Valley, is clearing out the Kalaeloa facility since it no longer manufactures cement at the site.

Calls to A.G. Transport, San Construction and Hawaiian Cement were not returned yesterday.


The tower consisted of six columns surrounded by a steel support structure.

Main said the decadesold cooling tower was being "pre-weakened" by the two demolition workers. Main likened the procedure to lumberjacks notching a tree for it to fall over in a specific direction. He said the workers were about five minutes away from pulling the tower over via cable and heavy equipment when the two heard a "creak or pop of some kind."

At that point, the tower collapsed.

Throughout the morning and afternoon, search teams weren't sure whether they were on a recovery or rescue mission although they remained focused on the possibility of finding the missing worker alive. Officials sent in an urban search-and-rescue dog trained to sniff out living people in a disaster, said Ray Moody, a volunteer Red Cross disaster action team captain who was on scene.

During two different searches at noon and at 2 p.m. the dog came back without finding anyone alive.

"We haven't heard any signs of life coming from the structure like someone calling out or any moans or anything like that. We only know the general area where he may be," Main said during the search.

The search was hampered by the instability of the tons of rubble, Main said.

He also noted the tower didn't collapse in the direction it was supposed to fall.

"Something on the structure failed," he said. "It fell to the west instead of the north."


Heavy equipment was used to painstakingly remove steel from the top of the pile one piece at a time, similar to a giant game of pick-up sticks, Main said.

Two temporary HFD towers were erected so the process could be monitored from two directions by HFD personnel, who could order the area to be cleared immediately should the steel appear to be on the verge of caving in.

Main said the idea was not to remove the man from the rubble, but to remove the rubble from the man which is safer, but it takes time.

"Everyone was watching," Moody said. "Everyone operated on their training. When the dog went inside, everyone hoped that he (the missing man) was in a cavity and able to survive. But apparently he wasn't."

Some 70 people were involved in the effort to remove the tons of steel rubble including more than three dozen HFD personnel, as well as workers from the demolition and construction crews and others from Hawaiian Cement, Main said.

Red Cross volunteers provided meals to rescue workers at the scene and Red Cross crisis counselors were on hand.

"We will follow up on Monday to make sure the workers are managing psychologically and are in good shape," Moody said.

Staff writer Suzanne Roig contributed to this report.