NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Plans have been pushed back a day to bring down two giant, unstable construction cranes in a series of controlled explosions before they can topple onto historic New Orleans buildings, the city's fire chief said Friday, noting the risky work involved in placing explosive on the towers.
With the possibility of winds picking up due to a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico, officials had hoped to bring the cranes down Friday. But Fire Chief Tim McConnell said it would likely be midday Saturday, or later.
"We're in the tough part now. Making it happen, putting people back in danger," McConnell said. "We're working as fast as possible."
Light, intermittent rain and winds were complicating efforts Friday as workers in buckets suspended from another crane worked to prepare the site, McConnell said.
"Winds pick up too high — and obviously they're much higher at those elevations — it slows us down," he said.
Three people died when a Hard Rock Hotel building under construction at the edge of the French Quarter partially collapsed in a cloud of blinding dust and falling debris last Saturday morning. One body was recovered but the bodies of two construction workers remain in the unstable wreckage. Mayor LaToya Cantrell said she joined loved ones in a memorial ceremony on a nearby rooftop Thursday night. She emphasized that recovering the bodies, with help from the National Guard, will be a top priority once the towers are down and the area is stable.
Cantrell cited the collapsed building and the coming storm in declaring a state of emergency Thursday that empowers police to "commandeer or utilize any private property," force people out of dangerous areas and suspend the sale or transport of alcohol and firearms, among other measures. Gov. John Bel Edwards followed by declaring a state of emergency in the city Friday.
The storm was on track to move east of the city but could still cause rain and gusty winds in the area.
Preparations, as outlined by McConnell, involved workers suspended from another crane that was moved into place Thursday. They were to weaken the damaged construction towers with blow torches and attach explosives at key points. One of the crane towers is about 270 feet (82 meters) high, the other about 300 feet (91 meters). Both have massive cross arms adding more tonnage. Neither is stable.
Officials said a wide evacuation area around the site would be expanded even further ahead of the explosion. Residents in the area were warned to be ready to leave Saturday afternoon and expect to be gone for several hours. A temporary relocation center was being set up for anyone needing it. People in the area also were warned to expect loud explosions.
McConnell said that once engineers believe they are about four hours away from detonation, the expanded evacuation will begin and authorities will go door to door to make sure people leave.
"If you are in line of sight of this you are too close," said city Homeland Security director Collin Arnold.
Gas to a major utility line was being shut down and steps were being taken to protect that line and underground electrical lines that could be affected by falling debris. McConnell said the line would be severely damaged were a crane to land on it.
If the operation is successful, McConnell said, the towers will drop vertically and simultaneously.
Experts, including some who brought down damaged buildings at Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, have worked around the clock since Saturday to devise a means of safely bringing down the cranes.
The cause of the collapse remains unknown. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration is investigating and, Cantrell and McConnell said, evidence gathering began soon after the collapse.
"We have now, all documents from the offices, the contractor offices, that were located on the site," Cantrell said. "All documents have been removed and secured by OSHA as well as the New Orleans Police Department."
Lawsuits are already being filed on behalf of some of the more than 20 people injured.