Just a few minutes ago, rescuers successfully retrieved two scaffold-maintenance workers at the Hearst Tower, in Midtown, who had become trapped between the forty-fourth and forty-fifth floors. (The rescue workers appear to have removed some windows on the forty-fourth floor, and to have helped the men step off the scaffold and into the building.) Earlier this year, Adam Higginbotham wrote about the challenges of window washing at the Hearst Tower for The New Yorker, in an article called “Life at the Top.” The Hearst Tower, Higginbotham reports, isn’t like other buildings in New York. It has a unique shape, and requires a particularly complex window-washing scaffold:
When the architect Norman Foster initially presented sketches for the Hearst Tower, the first skyscraper approved for construction in Manhattan after September 11th, one of the questions the building’s prospective owners asked was: How are we going to clean those windows? Foster’s proposal featured curtain walls of glass and stainless steel hung in a diagonal grid that met at each corner of the structure in a dramatic chamfer, a zigzag bevelled edge formed of four concave diamond shapes, each sixteen feet deep and eight stories high, known as “bird’s mouths” by the architects. These would have the effect of making the finished building look like a colossal, finely cut jewel. But there was no means of making them accessible to a window cleaner.
In early 2002, Foster + Partners’ associated architects approached Tractel-Swingstage, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of scaffolds and window-washing platforms, based in Toronto, to provide a solution. The task fell to the company’s vice-president of engineering at the time, Lakhram Brijmohan, who has spent a thirty-year career developing cleaning rigs but had never seen anything like the “bird’s mouths.” Designing and building the machine took a team of Tractel engineers three years. The result, a rectangular steel box the size of a Smart car, supporting a forty-foot mast and a hydraulic boom arm attached by six strands of wire rope to a telescopic cleaning basket, houses a computer that monitors sixty-seven electromechanical safety sensors and switches, and runs around the roof of the Hearst Tower on four hundred and twenty feet of elevated steel track. When it was finally installed, in April, 2005, at a cost of some three million dollars, it was described by Scott Borland, the project’s construction manager, as being “like a ride at Disneyland.
The Hearst Tower scaffold, in short, can fold around its center, allowing it to conform to the building’s angled windows. (A failure in this folding mechanism may be what trapped the men: NBC is reporting that the motor suffered a power failure.) Higginbotham went out on the scaffold with Bob Menzer, Janusz Kasparek, and Ron Brown, who work as window washers at the Tower. He described the experience this way:
A frigid wind scythed across Columbus Circle, humming in the rigging overhead, and each time I shifted my weight the narrow platform swayed sickeningly, like the world’s most appalling fairground ride. Menzer, resting his elbows on the edge of the basket with the serenity of a man watching ducks on a village pond, controlled each of the rig’s movements using a set of sixteen buttons on a remote-control box. When the car reached the northeast corner of the tower, the basket hung in the air above Eighth Avenue and slowly folded into a right angle. It was ready for a “bird’s mouth” drop.…
“Years ago, it was just straight up and down, flat glass. Bing!” Bob Menzer told me. “Now everything they’re building is all angles.”
Now that the men are safe, the next challenge is the scaffold, which is still hanging over the street; right now, portions of Fifty-seventh Street, Fifty-eighth Street, and Eighth Avenue are closed. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about the Hearst Tower, and about the challenges of window washing in general, “Life at the Top” is available in The New Yorker’s archive.