Crane op­er­a­tor’s work day puts him above us all

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS -

Ihave been look­ing up, cran­ing my neck to see the crane, since March, when the rise of 414 Light Street seemed to sud­denly be­come prom­i­nent on the Bal­ti­more sky­line. The 44-story apart­ment build­ing sits on the on­ce­fra­grant site of the McCormick Spice Com­pany, over­look­ing the In­ner Har­bor and just about ev­ery­thing else around Bal­ti­more. When com­pleted, it will be the tallest res­i­den­tial prop­erty in the city, at 500 feet.

Of all the men and women work­ing on the $160 mil­lion, glassy blue tower for the de­vel­oper, Ques­tar Prop­er­ties, the one that in­ter­ested me most was the one above the rest — the op­er­a­tor of the tower crane.

That per­son works in the sky, con­trol­ling from his seat in a glass-and-steel cab the flow of con­crete and ma­te­ri­als to the work­ers be­low him.

As the weeks and months passed, and the build­ing rose sky­ward, I would stand on a side­walk on Charles Street or Con­way Street, look up and watch with gen­uine awe as the crane lifted vats of con­crete to a floor be­ing poured.

This week, the crane op­er­a­tor sits at 544 feet as work­ers from Schuster Con­crete ap­proach the top­ping off of the build­ing.

“We’ll be putting the roof on soon,” says Dustin Baker, the 27-year-old fel­low who has been op­er­at­ing the crane from the start of con­struc­tion in March 2016.

At one point af­ter the start, Baker’s crane tow­ered over a big hole in the ground, free­stand­ing at 280 feet. Since then, the crane and su­per­struc­ture have risen floor by floor, from foun­da­tion and park­ing garage to the build­ing’s full height, and Baker has hardly missed a day.

Those days are long. Baker starts at 5:30 a.m. He of­ten puts in 12 hours in the cab, some­times more. Once he climbs a steel lad­der and gets into his seat, he’s there for the day. He does not come down for lunch. The only thing that chases him down the lad­der are elec­tri­cal storms or winds of 40 miles per hour or more.

There is some down­time in the cab, as Baker awaits or­ders, but the crane is crit­i­cal to the flow of work. It lifts ma­te­ri­als from the street to the work­ers set­ting forms for the pour­ing of con­crete col­umns, walls, steps and floors.

Crane op­er­a­tion is in­tense, re­quir­ing full con­cen­tra­tion, clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the work­ers and su­per­vi­sors be­low him, and good hands at the con­trols.

Baker dis­cov­ered he had a nat­u­ral skill for op­er­at­ing a crane when he was 20, just a cou­ple of years af­ter his grad­u­a­tion from Franklin High School in Reis­ter­stown.

“They asked me if I wanted to give it a try, and I said sure,” he says. “I got in the cab and ob­served an­other op­er­a­tor, and the next day they put me in the seat. It was sink or swim. I guess I had a knack for it.

“By the sec­ond or third day, they were say­ing, ‘He’s got it.’”

The “it” of crane op­er­a­tion in­volves a lot of things, Baker says, and he lists them for me: “Com­mon sense, for one thing. Clear think­ing, good depth per­cep­tion, good hand-eye co­or­di­na­tion.”

He prides him­self on “smooth­ness and quick­ness” in the de­liv­ery of ma­te­ri­als. It can take sev­eral min­utes to hoist some­thing from the base of the build­ing, and dur­ing that time Baker cal­cu­lates for wind and weight, us­ing his con­trols to steady his de­liv­ery.

There are mo­ments of stress, Baker says, and he gets im­pa­tient when the work suf­fers from lack of or­ga­ni­za­tion or com­mu­ni­ca­tion from the ground.

Stephen Gorn, chair­man and CEO of Ques­tar, ex­pects 414 to open in March. A pre-leas­ing of­fice has been show­ing prospec­tive ten­ants a model apart­ment and giv­ing vir­tual tours since June. When com­pleted, the tower will have 394 apart­ments, two of them 1,800-square­foot pent­houses, plus restau­rants and re­tail.

The views of Bal­ti­more and be­yond from var­i­ous lev­els — from a ter­race with gar­dens and a swim­ming pool, from the 40th floor, from the pent­houses — are all stun­ning. On a clear day, you can see the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Bridge.

The old McCormick build­ing stood only nine sto­ries. It’s safe to say that no one has had the par­tic­u­lar van­tage that the up­per floors of 414 Light Street will one day al­low its ten­ants.

Above it all, for these many months, Dustin Baker has en­joyed an even more un­usual view — one that, once he climbs down, none but birds will have.

DUSTIN BAKER

Dustin Baker takes a selfie out­side the cab of the crane at the 414 Light Street con­struc­tion site. He has spent the past 19 months work­ing high above the city.

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