NEW ORLEANS – The city of New Orleans is preparing to explode two giant, badly damaged construction cranes that are towering over a partially collapsed hotel project at the edge of the French Quarter, bringing them down Friday just ahead of tropical weather that could possibly cause them to tumble out of control.
They hope to demolish the cranes with a series of controlled explosions that would drop them straight down without damaging gas and electricity lines and historic buildings.
Fire Chief Tim McConnell said they're working quickly to collapse the multi-ton structures as authorities keep watch on the outer bands of what the National Hurricane Center expects to become Tropical Storm Nestor. Forecasters said the storm could kick up stiff winds and rain by Friday night.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell cited the collapsed Hard Rock Hotel and the coming storm in declaring a state of emergency 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.
"There is still a possibility of tropical storm force winds here in New Orleans," Gov. John Bel Edwards said, flanking the mayor at a Thursday evening news conference. "That is not the probability. But there is a probability that we're going to have elevated winds regardless."
The fire chief described a plan involving workers suspended from another crane, moved in Thursday, 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.
"The rear tower moved four inches overnight, the one in the front moved two inches," McConnell said. "They're not designed to do that."
McConnell said an already wide evacuation area around the site would be expanded ahead of the explosion. 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. "Think of it like it's melting," he told reporters.
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 construction project collapsed Saturday in blinding clouds of dust, killing three workers and injuring more than 20 people. Only one of three bodies has been recovered from the wreckage.
The cause of the collapse remains unknown. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration will investigate. Lawsuits are already being filed on behalf of the injured.