At trial, man trapped by NYC crane collapse recalls 'thinking I was going to die'

NEW YORK (AP) — John Gallego was pinned in pitch-dark debris, thinking he was about to die, after a giant construction crane crashed down on his apartment.

Though able to move only his head and left hand, he managed to wrest his cell phone from his pocket and call for help.

"Please help me!" he screamed to a 911 operator. "I'm under the ... building!"

The call was played as Gallego testified Wednesday at crane rigger William Rapetti's manslaughter trial, recounting the March 2008 disaster that killed seven people. Gallego, a clothing and electronics vendor originally from Caracas, Venezuela, was trapped in the rubble for about four hours before he was rescued.

The 200-foot-tall crane was being extended upward when it toppled onto a residential block in midtown Manhattan. Prosecutors say the rig fell because Rapetti did a poor job of securing it. His lawyer says Rapetti was careful and did nothing wrong.

Gallego had just gotten a cup of coffee and was sitting on his sofa when he heard metal crashing. He looked out a window and saw something hit the building behind his.

"When it hit the building, I just closed my eyes and just waited in there, couldn't do anything," Gallego, 33, told a judge Wednesday. Rapetti declined a jury trial.

"The next thing — it was so fast — I was under the rubble and thinking I was going to die, and I was buried alive," Gallego said.

Though terrified and in agony, stuck lying on his right side, he worked his phone free and called his girlfriend. He told her to call for help, called 911 himself and then took a call from a neighborhood friend who was able to rush the phone to an emergency worker.

Gallego nearly passed out at points from pain as rescuers worked to free him, he said.

"I don't think there's a way to describe it. There was a lot of pain," he said.

Gallego ultimately had five surgeries on his legs and still walks with a cane. He is suing Rapetti's company, Rapetti Rigging Services Inc., and others over the accident.

The collapse, one of the nation's deadliest crane accidents, killed six construction workers and a friend of Gallego's who was visiting from Hialeah, Fla. Two dozen other people were hurt.

Prosecutors, city building officials and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration attributed the collapse to the failure of four polyester straps Rapetti and his crew were using temporarily to secure a nearly six-ton piece of steel on the crane.

Rapetti used half the recommended number of straps, including one that was badly worn, and ignored requirements to pad the straps to keep them from fraying, prosecutors say.

Rapetti's lawyer, Arthur Aidala, says the rigger was scrupulous about safety, and the straps weren't to blame for the collapse. The crane was compromised by a host of decisions Rapetti had nothing to do with, such as the way it was set on the ground, he says.