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Escalators – Back in the boom – an old article resurfaces

March 13, 2019

Don Lucas at Encore Trucking in Canada relates his story of how bad weather, restricted space and tough working conditions were overcome to install some escalators in a new building. A pair of 2.9 ton Unic mini cranes in an inaccessible area did the same job that Encore had a 50 ton do before.

Installing escalators with spyder cranes or mini cranes
Installing escalators with spyder cranes

The city of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada has been the centre of a tremendous oil boom. With oil at US$140 a barrel in October 2008, conventional oil and gas exploration in Western Canada and the drive to develop the oil sands, all put Edmonton in an unprecedented building explosion.

“We were past busy, beyond frenzy, we just called it stupid busy,” Don Lucas says. “The city was a mad beehive, ripping and bulging at her own seams. We couldn’t accommodate the influx of people, rental properties were scarce and expensive, housing prices outrageous, roads and highways were jammed and dangerous. Tradesmen were swamped, workers were difficult to find and many were arrogantly demanding,” Don Lucas explains.

The city and province were building infrastructure, ring routes, overpasses, bridges and light rail transit. The first southern leg of the LRT was an important, even vital, step in the public transit system. The rails ran south from the University of Alberta campus, with a stop at off campus housing, continuing to Southgate Mall and further south to another large development on 23rd Avenue. Every stop along the way was a construction site and, with the street still being used by heavy traffic flowing out of residential areas, it was a nightmare, Lucas says.

PCL, the largest construction company in Alberta, was working on both sites and was in charge of the LRT connection between them. One piece of the puzzle was four escalators. Two at each site allow people to safely cross the tracks and make a bus connection without crossing a busy highway.

Encore worked with the Kone elevator company to install the escalators. “Our part was to bring the escalators to site, offload the units, slide them into position and lift one end up to a second story landing where it rested on steel beams and lower the other end into a concrete pocket in the floor,” Lucas explains.

It sounds simple enough on paper but the practical details made it a complex job. Access on each site was limited. “I could say we were getting used to that type of situation, but it would be like saying one is used to smallpox, or having one leg; you do the best you can with what the situation gives you,” Lucas comments.

The escalators were not huge. There was a pair of two piece stairs that had to be put together. “Once joined – and we’d do that on site – they were 59 feet (18 m) long and 22,000 pounds (10 tonnes). The smaller pair, which arrived in a single piece, was 51 feet (15.5 m) long and 19,000 pounds (8.6 tonnes). “They each had good lifting facilities at each end so we weren’t concerned about that. We had already lifted them off incoming trailers onto our own, so they were sitting in my yard completely enclosed in thick white plastic wrap that had been heat shrunk down the entire body. Four huge crooked cocoons,” Lucas says.

The recessed pit for the escalator foot was usually surrounded by open beams and columns but with a large articulating knuckle boom crane it was accessible. “Your equipment had to be stout enough to sit back and acquire the proper angle of lift, [flat out], and have one of Encore’s custom dead sticks; a five to nine foot extendable finger of T-1 steel, just the thing for poking under overhead beams and lifting escalators. We used a Fassi 1500, 75 ton [68 tonne] knuckle, on a tandem tridem Kenworth chassis. To put the technical jargon into real-speak, ‘it’s a truly giant crane on a huge truck.’ Ten thousand pound [4.5 tonne] lifts are child’s play to this girl but our distances grew as the lift became more complex,” Lucas explains.

Understanding

“To understand the tale of the escalator and the mini cranes, you first have to listen to the story of our first installation. That work, that bit of nasty, was not accessible from the side,” says Lucas. The escalator would rest between two high block walls like a great sandwich. The walls were already in place when Encore arrived to preview the job, offer advice and, in some cases, “offer condolences to the poor joes who bid the job in the first place. Question: How did they do that without talking to us?”

The only way to get at the lift was from the ends. These points were open and it looked possible. At the escalator’s lower end, the opening had a beam across it about 18 feet (5.5 m) high and another beam at 8 feet (2.4 m).

“We ‘could’ drive in and set up sideways with the crane directly in line with the final lift, and our crane sitting firmly on the concrete pedestrian platform. That was the other thing; the pocket we were shooting for was over 50 feet away. 11,000 pounds at 50 feet, that’s a heavy lift for a truck mounted crane, but still doable,” says Lucas.

“The other end was the real nut-cracker. Picture this. You ride in comfort and leisure, up the smooth new escalator then, as you dismount and stroll onto the second floor landing, you see a window, glass from floor to ceiling, directly in front of you. You are drawn to the viewpoint, take seven steps and you stand in front of the glass. It is glass now but only short months before it was a rough opening through which Encore would have to shoot the head of its crane.”

The second floor was only twenty-five feet (7.6 m) high but, from the steel opening where the escalator would rest, to the ‘window’ in the second story wall, the only entrance point, it was 22 feet (6.7 m). Twenty-two feet and a straight walk to a 20 by 10 foot (6 x 3 m) opening.

“I stood and looked up at the opening. There was room here to park our crane. If we pushed the brick layers stock over and moved the scaffolder’s piles we could set up. The problem was could we stab through the opening, stay high enough to miss the floor, and reach in 22 feet, without hitting the roof? That was the key. We measured and measured again. The actual reach we needed was 25 feet [7.6 m]. A foot [300 mm] for the inset lift lugs, another foot to dodge a pesky beam on the lift up, and another to give us some room to play with. Okay, 25 feet from the edge of the opening to where the crane tip touches the inner roof, that’s what we needed.”

Everything was set; contractors, crane operators, engineers, superintendents and safety personnel. “Set to troop on up and check our measures and measure our checks,” only to realize the final inspection of the scaffold stairway had not been done. They were taped off. “We weren’t allowed up, not even the site general would cross that line, and that was a problem. We had to get some idea if our plan had a reasonable chance. My brother Jim and I reasoned that if we can’t go up top, then we’d do it the old-fashioned way – eyeball it.”

Measuring stick

Don took a stick and cut it 10 feet long, walked back to where the crane’s turret would sit, and held it, while they sighted from the top of the stick, on a line that cleared the first floor opening and followed the line, to where it struck the interior ceiling.

It looked good, it appeared that the boom would reach in far enough to grab the escalator. “Jim and I, as the journeymen crane operators, probably had a better eye for this kind of thing than the others but every one of these men with us were experienced professional construction men. These guys wore their hard hats to bed.” Everyone’s opinion of the sighting was checked. “Glenn, the PCL general on site, was an especially sharp cookie, but everyone concurred: At least from the ground floor, we had the reach.”

The next thing was to measure the distance from the lift to the crane turret, check it against the chart and the lift weight of 11,000 pounds (5 tonnes) and that looked good too – 14,000 pounds (6.4 tonnes) at 46 feet (14 m). “We had it in the bag.”

PCL and many similar large construction outfits have an 80% capacity rule. Exceed it and the job requires an ‘engineered lift’, “two words that usually strike terror into crane operators and project managers.” The escalator job already required an engineer to check the lift as part of the two crane lift rule.

“Here’s a tip, to get the paper work done on this one, it took over a month. Stay under the 80% cap, and you’ll save yourself a lot of time and grief. Here’s how it works. I determine the cranes to use, figure out the capacities of each, where to place them, how far the reaches are, what the crane can lift at those distances; write it all up, send it to an engineer and he sends the same information back in a neat format, with a cool drawing, a whole wack of safety cautions, like he was really on the site; his stamp on it and a 2,500 dollar bill. Might as well get my brother in law to stamp it, when he’s sober he can read a chart and my write up as well as anyone.”

The distances and chart readouts look good. “We are under 80%, not by much though and I checked the set-up of the boom truck. We could move closer and still keep the same basic angle. Good news, then we ‘knew’ the whole job was doable.”

The day of the lift operator Gary lifted both sections of the escalator off Encore’s trailers. They were set on large rolling platforms and the boom was used to push both into position down concrete alley. At that point both cranes were moved into position.

“Once Gary carefully unfolded the boom, pulled the dead and squeezed it through the opening between the beams, he pushed out the hydraulics and, grabbing both pieces of the big stair at once, lifted them, squeezing the two pieces together.”

Precise alignment was needed for them to fit. “We feathered, pulled, pounded, oiled and lifted ever so gently until we could drive the pins through, locking the units into one solid structure.”

While Kone torqued the escalator Encore attended to a problem. “Joe, our 50-ton operator, had already set up his crane, taken his big block off and substituted a smaller single schive. We didn’t need anything more than a double line so this had twin benefits.” First was that it dropped three hundred pounds off the final lift weight and, second, its compact size made the stab between floors much easier. “He boomed out through what will be a hallway, all 22 feet of it, until we had a couple of feet clearance from the steel edge. He was still a foot below the ceiling. Perfect. We stopped and locked him off and lowered the block to the waiting escalator and connected the rigging.”

Lifting together

At this point both cranes were co-ordinated and lifted the complete escalator a few inches before moving it over as far as possible to one side. Carpenters moved in quickly, ripping out nails, pulling wood and dismantling scaffolding to expose the concrete pocket – the hole for the end of the escalator.

“Gary had a remote control and was standing over the hole, ready. I stayed up top and spoke to Joe, on radio. Ready. We swung the stair back in line, made a few minute adjustments on Joe’s end and we were set.”

Kone called a pre-lift meeting where coordination was discussed. Encore already knew that the weights were good and they started to lift. “Joe winched up slow. That’s the way we wanted it, everything in slow motion. Joe lifts, Gary follows, watching his hook; eyeing the escalator as it rose and compensating for that movement with subtle reach and lift adjustments. A ponderous ballet with years of skill in this rough display.”

Within five minutes and with barely a glitch, the load was level with the second floor. “Joe boomed in, bringing the load back on to the steel. Gary had followed us up, pushing his end forward as we gained height and lengthened his radius, now he let down into the pocket.” That was the first one done.

Two weeks later Encore did another one, a week later a third and then, in early November, still in balmy weather, the final escalator was lifted, this time at Southgate. Joe was in the 50, cabling down through roof beams while Gary with the 75 was reaching under steel to drop the end into the pocket. “We were an experienced crew by this time.”

Joe lifted the escalator tip up smartly while Gary held his. After the carpenters cleaned out the hole he lowered his end into the pit then Joe followed him down; and the high nose of the escalator didn’t touch. It was too short. “What the Hey!”

“Eventually it got back to us that the concrete pit was misplaced. We wanted to be done with it – pull the unit forward, weld it to the steel and pour concrete in behind the escalator, whatever space was left, fill it up.”

That would have been cheaper but Lucas knew it would never be accepted. The unit was lowered and moved over. The carpenters replaced the scaffolding, the wood and the plywood. The magic staircase was gently lowered onto the dollies again and skated back out of the way.

“We packed up and drove back to base. Then we waited for the finger pointing to die down, and the elevator company’s call to reinstall.” A couple of weeks went by, a month, then it was December and Encore finally got the call. They were ready. “Jim and I went to check the site again. A lot can change in a month and had it ever.”

Change of scene

The roof was on and the second floor was completely covered. “There was no way we could use Joe. We thought about cutting a hole in the roof, or just taking off a couple of panels, but the thick smell of fresh tar and spotting the roofers pouring tar even as we phrased the question, stopped us cold.” Neither PCL nor the city would go for that. “But we asked and got the expected reply that went something like ‘not over my dead body.'”

The alternative was erecting a temporary girder and raising the load on a chain hoist. That would be a week or two of hard work and they wanted to avoid that. “Was there anything we could do”?

Jim and Don were on the second floor, starring into the hole, to the concrete slab below. “It looked deep. We thought about the weight. Joe said he had 9,000 pounds on the hook when he first lifted his end. We looked at the set up, the twelve-foot ceiling, and had a crazy idea. We could fit our mini-cranes in there, two of them. No, it was too heavy, reckless, even. Using two 2.9 ton cranes to do what a 50 ton had done couldn’t work, never.” Or could it? They could get very close to the hole and possibly put their outriggers to either side of it. It might work.

“We told Mike from Kone, it was his project, about our idea. He said to check our figures and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. We measured the opening and the surrounding spaces, went back to our yard, designed and set up an exact replica of the hole. We pulled out two mini cranes and set them up in one, two, then three variations. No, they didn’t work, no we weren’t close enough. The weights were too much.”

As Encore worked with the set ups, they realized the lift points of the escalators were closer to the corners of the units. “We moved our turrets over and gained valuable leg space. We also learned to entwine one leg over the other crane’s, gaining solid stability points.” Stability, that was the real issue, especially with a yawning pit ready to swallow any and all. “If the numbers didn’t work we would walk away, we didn’t need any cowboys on this job. We wanted clear thinking crane operators.”

With each set up, they managed to inch closer to the edge of the steel cavern. That was the most important measure – the radius of the lift, turret to lift point. “We had to reach out beyond the edge about a foot and a half to the lift lugs in the upper structure of the escalator and add in another six inches for clearance. This was a big girl and we wanted to give her some room to swing and play with.”

There was one more problem; “One we didn’t need and one we never suspected until we peered over the lip of the beams surrounding our drop of doom.” Directly below, sticking out from the rising columns was a six-inch pipe, of unknown utility, protruding out another foot and a half. That find sponsored a few expletives. “That pipe pushed our radius to almost three and a half feet beyond the steel edge, plus the distance from our turret to that edge. This was a game of inches and we didn’t appreciate losing distance.”

Check it all out

Charts were checked “intently, religiously and with a faint whisper of prayer on our lips. We wanted this job, we knew no-one had pulled off a lift like this but, if anyone could, we were the boys to do it. We had years of experience with tight interior work, lifting heavy loads with special gadget jibs, through doors, windows, between joists, into basements, down holes. We had this job in our rifle sights, we knew it was a little outrageous, and it would scare most people off but we weren’t going to do anything stupid. The charts would tell us how whacked our idea was.”

Don hauled out a magnifying glass to read those figures exactly. “Joe had 9,000 pounds on the hook and we had to beat 4,500 pounds, by a bunch. I wasn’t doing a 99% capacity, two-crane lift up out of a yawning concrete and steel crater.” The consequences of not being able to co-ordinate the lift or a leg slipping were too horrible to contemplate.

It said 5,500 pounds – that wasn’t too bad. So it was possible… maybe.

The team mulled it over and considered the other problems. For one, this wasn’t just a two-crane lift – it was three. “We had Gary in the 75 ton Fassi at the other end. His lift was simple compared to ours. The nine to ten thousand pound lift was well within his chart. All he had to do was reach under the ceiling beams, rig short. We had lift bars, clutched chain slings. He probably should pull his dead stick, that would give him a clean piece of steel to play with, so he didn’t have to worry about accidentally touching a pesky hydraulic line and making one of those environmentally unfriendly messes that contractors are so sensitive about.”

Once Gary was hooked up, the escalator would be shuffled as close as possible to the final lift point. Room had to be left for that damned pipe, which presented another problem.

“We went thru the lift in our minds, inch by inch, starring out, but looking inside and I was probably moving my hands like a mime artist to mimic the rise of the escalator.” It is a valuable process to “think” the lift. As they played it out they realized there was another danger. “Our big folder was more than capable of overloading our minis. Yes, it could happen but this was Gary on the controls and Mr Devlin was too attentive, too naturally skilled to allow it to happen.”

Still, they had to co-ordinate a lift straight up then, as the united minis continued to hoist, Gary had to pause and follow up and in, swing his load as the stair top was lifted. “That was the delicate part, to follow us just fast enough so he didn’t cause drag, and yet not push the escalator into us or the upper wall – that would be just as bad.”

In operators we trust

It didn’t sound good, but it was a trusted operator with years of experience, a natural eye and one other thing: “He had a radio remote and could stand right at his hook point and watch it point the way. That made sense. If he could stand beside the load, once his crane was definitely stable, he could tell how it was affecting the two minis. Okay.”

Next issue was the strength of the mini’s hydraulics. Most of the time the winch is a beast that will pull regardless of the load or situation. “Twenty percent of chart, or two hundred percent overloaded, it will pull and only the built in shutdowns of the crane’s monitoring system will shut it down. The winch would lift. We were confident of that. Stability was another issue but we would test that.”

The problem was laying the boom down on a 40 to 60 degree angle and pushing out enough stick to reach the lift points on the staircase and to dodge the pipe. “Let’s say we do that, boom out at the highest angle we can, lower the hook and successfully lift the escalator. At some point we had to pull the escalator back that two feet towards us.”

They had to boom up and raise the boom. “This is the real test of any crane; can it boom up with weight? Well, of course it can, our spider machines may be miniature, but they are still real cranes.” The question to answer was: at that length of boom and that precise boom angle, how much weight? To complicate matters, will it clear the roof, or touch, as the boom tip is brought up.

It could be close, the ceiling was only 9 to 10 feet high. But Encore had another trick. “As long as the escalator remained high enough to sit on the upper floor, we could boom in or retract, and pull the load in that way.”

That sounded good. Back in the open area for testing in Encore’s yard, with a frame in the shape of the stair opening, a 4,000 pound test weight was lifted. It was then extended out further than necessary, pushing the chart, then boomed up, and up it came. “The legs quivered a little, we adjusted again, this time they were solid, and the roof; it looked like we’d miss it. Okay!

“We phoned Mike, told him we thought we could do it, but we left ourselves an out, just in case. We had a safety valve. We would know for certain we could do this, when the lift was an inch off the deck because, at that point, to check our stability we would attempt to boom up both cranes, just a little, a final check and, if these tests were successful, we would continue the lift.”

Any failure here would make the lift too dangerous to attempt. “And, of course, we’d cut our bill to a minimum for his and our time and trouble. ‘My God, we didn’t want to do that.'”

Mike said to write it up and he’d give it to PCL, see if he could sell it to them. Encore did and waited. “Less than two weeks later PCL gave us the green light. We were pleased but I have to say I was a little surprised. Most construction companies, especially on high profile city funded projects, run for the safety of proven, well-used methods usually related to some ancient Egyptian procedure, rather than trying anything new fangled or creative.”

Encore’s history of tricky work with PCL had just paid off and now they had to perform. “I’m not saying we didn’t have second and third thoughts ourselves, the job was losing me sleep, Jim too.”

They went over their figures again and made another trip to site. That was an adventure in itself as it was minus 25 degrees, centigrade; with a knife edged wind. “Good grief, how were we to work in this?” PCL wanted action, Kone wanted to do the final installation and the papers were full of city planners and aldermen demanding progress on the LRT construction and explanations for cost overruns. “We just wanted to get the job out of our hair, but we’ve worked through too many Canadian winters to attempt a complicated heavy lift like this one in temperatures below minus twenty. We had to wait.”

The weather was breaking a bit over the weekend and the forecast was minus 24 on Saturday, increasing to minus 15 by Tuesday.

“Our most experienced and trusted mini-crane operators were my brother Jim, and my son Jeff. It was late in December, I was leaving for Belize the following Monday. We had to shoot for this Tuesday. There was some talk of weekend work but Jim and I rejected that idea. We weren’t working hard all week and slamming our heads into brick walls on the weekends too. Besides it was just too cold. We waited, nervously, as the freezing chill prowled around Alberta squeezing the life out of the very air.”

Running the gas engines worried the team. They rented a site heater and a couple of propane tanks. Then they worried again about the set up and how they could get the cranes up to the second floor. They took them to site a day early and Jeff pulled in as close as he could and rigged the little crawlers up tight. They are not light at 4,100 pounds (1.86 tonnes) apiece and may look like toys, at only 24 inches wide folded, but they are solid, says Don Lucas. “Jeff lifted them up with one of our 18 ton folders, with the dead pulled, he inched them through the beams into the second floor. He’d started each of them on the deck and they were running as we lifted them; maybe we were a little too cautious.

“Jim and I walked the machines over to the lip of the stair opening. We set each crane up, just as we’d practiced in our yard; only here it was for real, and our set-up was even better than we’d planned.”

The legs swing out and pin in different positions. As to the position of the outriggers, well if the load was directly in front, the legs should be straight out front too. On this lift the legs could straddle the hole.

“We may have been pleased, but our smiles were frozen on our faces. We covered up the cranes with an insulated tarp, dreading to leave them over night. As we shut the engine down we told ourselves, they were real runners, they should start. Jeff and I tied the tarps as best we could, but it was still a windy terror up there. Jim hooked up the heater, and turned it on, with some misgiving. They’re not my favorite tool, or the safest, but we kept the tarp away from the open flame end. With the wind gusting thru the open structure, it seemed to put out pitiful little heat anyway.”

Set up was for 9 the next morning when it got light and they needed the light. Co-ordinating the lift from 20 feet (6 m) above could be tricky, but Gary and Cliff were down below.

“Neither Jim nor I slept well. I dressed that morning like I was climbing Everest; my warmest wick underwear, ninety dollars a piece, they’d better be good; two pairs of socks, one thin, one thick; blue jeans, thick jean shirt, down vest, leather jacket, and over it all two piece insulated coveralls; thick Sorel steel toed felt boots, wool balaclava that pulled down as a neck warmer, thick gloves and a hard hat. I could barely move. I had so many clothes on I’d created my own environment.”

Setting up

“Jeff pulled onto site, over to one side out of the way. The site was congested. We had to turn Gary around and back him cross the congested street, blocking traffic in the height of the morning rush. Try and back up a tandem tridem 45 foot long truck thru this kind of traffic. It was an adventure because you almost have to shoot out the tyres of the first couple of cars to get them to slow down, but stop, don’t be ridiculous.

As we were backing off the street down a gravel slope to the level of the site, our Kenworth was so long that the fuel tanks dipped lower and lower on the abrupt slope and my arm was just rising to stop him, the tanks clipping pebbles, when the front tyres came over the slope, and the tanks rose just enough to clear. It was close, fuel spills are worse than hydraulic.

Gary had his own ideas how to set up. He had to lift both ends of the escalator onto dollies, so they could roll the big girl into place. We left him to it and Jim and I went upstairs to check our mini cranes. We shut down the heater and stripped the tarps off, it was definitely warmer than the previous day, still cold, probably minus 17, but not bitter. We could expect the temperature to climb a little more through the morning, but it was definitely better. Score one for the good guys.

We pulled out the engine chokes, set the throttle at about half way, deactivated the emergency stop button and turned the key. After a couple of quick revolutions they both started. Score two. We set the throttle to three quarters and let them warm up while we went down to help move the escalator into position below us.

It was being stubborn. Mike and Kone’s crew had brought a tugger and they were using it to drag the big girl in inch by inch, hammering on the dollies to straighten the wheels, tugging and baring again. Using steel bars and long four by fours we eventually wrestled the unit far enough so our tiny booms looked right above the lift points.

PCL had their carpenters there. Gary lifted the escalator, pushed it over to one side and they dismantled the flooring and underpins, exposing the small pit; four feet deep, a hair or two wider than our escalator and now, the perfect length – we hoped.

Getting safe

I’d forgotten a safety harness and borrowed one of Kone’s. It was a little different type and so torturously difficult to fasten the legging straps, adjust the arm loops and dolly belt, so hard to undo and tighten the belt system, that I near froze my fingers. My gloves were useless, my brain completely dumfounded by this Houdini trap strap. I had to get one of Kone’s crew to help me dress. That was a pretty weird feeling.

Jim and Jeff were up top. We had already decided to run the cranes hydraulically rather than use the remotes. It gave us better control of the crane and more of a feel for the lift. On the other hand it put our operators on the far side of the machine, eight feet away from the hole. They would have to rely on my signals. It was just too damn noisy for radios, and confusing, we didn’t want a lot of chatter and cross signal. No, I wanted to be the signal man. Jim and Jeff were better on the mini cranes.

I strapped my lanyard around a column, knelt down and leaned over the edge, the crew was ready and we lowered both hooks down the shaft to the escalator’s upper edge. While they shackled us in we took apart the hand railing that encircled the pit. We were ready and the crew had a final tailgate meeting, Kone and PCL listening intently. The mood was pretty serious.

Now we were hooked up and on cues from Cliff, standing beside the tip of the escalator below me, we tightened up. As soon as we started feeling it we checked our status and everything looked good. We weren’t off the ground yet but we paused while Gary lifted his end, about two feet and held.

We started to lift our end. I had to lay down to watch the load and keep my arms up so the boys could see my signals. I heard the winches start to work as the load weight built. Cliff and Gary stopped us, just like in the plan, at the one inch mark.

We had adjusted both mini cranes so they were on a fairly high angle. Cranes live and die on the strength of their boom angle, the higher the angle, the better they like it. Gary’s big knuckle on the other hand, can do a maximum lift straight out, which is why that crane could reach into the hallway and grab the bottom of this beast. To continue, we had our high angle and we were extended out to gain radius, just enough so we could reach the load but, not so far that when we raised our boom, that we touched the ceiling. It’s a bit of a compromise there, but what we had to know, was ‘could’ we boom up at all; so that’s exactly what we tested next. I gave the thumbs up sign. We could hear the hydraulics dig in, we knew it wouldn’t be easy but both cranes lifted and lifted smooth. Score three.

Pause for thought

Cliff was waving at me and we had to adjust the escalator. We were out of synch already. How could that be? We hadn’t started yet. Jeff had to winch up, Jim was a little high. We levelled the frame off but, before we started Jim, wanted to check legs again. We made one minor adjustment on a back leg, and we were ready for the big pull.

I started the cranes but only got a few feet before Cliff signalled full stop. We levelled again. Jim high, Jeff low. Two more feet, same thing. Now I knew what was happening. Jim was an aggressive operator, Jeff cautious. We had a personality clash. Something we didn’t need in a lift like this. I disconnected my harness and spoke to both operators explaining to Jim that he was too fast, he had to slow down, and Jeff he was too slow he had to speed up.

Everything else looked good and we returned to the lift. We were in the air and Gary was already starting to follow us up. I changed my signals to two separate hands, one for each operator. We started up again, inching up. I was watching Cliff and Gary below me as they coached me from down below. From up top I couldn’t tell if it was level, corkscrewed, or upside down. When Gary would swing his end to us we could see slight angle changes in the line and we reacted to that. I kept both hands in the air, the finger making tiny circles, the universal symbol for winch up. I could point that finger at the operator, speed up my circles or slow it down. The little engines were running flat out, conversation was difficult, communication spotty at best.

But we were coming up and, finally, I had a good view from up top. Jim was still too fast. I sped Jeff up and the escalator crawled smoothly past the devil pipe. Now we had references to keep the unit level and we could boom up to shorten radius. The stair rose and pulled in towards us. Now we were winning, gaining confidence as the boom angle steepened. We started the winches again, and the top of the escalator rose above the floor, like a whale breaching water. Now our operators could see what they were doing. We slowed right down and they lifted the steel snake nearly clear. We stopped again and boomed up a little more. The escalator moved back towards us.

Getting up

The bottom skid lip finally cleared the rim. We were up! Everyone stopped about 4 inches above the rim. We boomed up again and pulled in a little boom; nearly there.

Gary called up and said he was directly above the hole. We set our end onto the steel plate – yes. Gary tried to let his end slip down into the concrete pocket, but it didn’t want to go down. Gary came to our opening and called up again, his end was jammed hard against the end, half way down the pit. Could we pull our end towards us? We tried, but we were tight against a steel angle. We were as far as we could go. The boys called up again. Said it wouldn’t fit, no way it was going in there.

After a slightly nauseating feeling of déjà vu, we tried another tactic. If the pit was built to the exact length required, then anything less than the perfect angle meant an increase in length – not much but maybe enough.

We lifted the top end up a foot, two feet, two and a half. We heard the crew calling good, okay. We started down and Gary jammed again, but we gained a little. Gary came over and peered up out of the cellar; he thought the way to do it was to keep the escalator at the perfect angle and lower slowly, but together. That made sense. He went back to his business end and we raised our end until he broke free. Then on Cliff’s signal we all let down together, slow and dead slow, but as we lowered, we could feel the grab and release of the concrete as the unit scraped its way down. At two inches off steel up top, he jammed again. We were in a pickle this time.

Gary eyeballed down one side of the frame, then the other, and declared that there was an inch difference in clearance side to side. Grabbing one of the crowbars he gave it a tweak and it broke free and slid the last two inches into the pocket. We lowered our end and we were done.

Our crew was all smiles.

We packed up our gear and headed for base. Jim and I were late for a Christmas luncheon of his business association. Now we had a story to tell. We had made industrial history. Two 2.9 ton mini cranes had walked into a totally inaccessible area and done the same job we had a 50 ton do before. We owed a debt to the people we work with. Our equipment is top notch but it takes a good man to pull the best out of that iron.