Raphael Vassallo | Sunday, 24 May 2009
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Crane collapses. So what?

Remember ‘Groundhog Day’, anyone? That incredibly annoying film, in which Bill Murray is condemned to reliving the same sequence of events, in the same order, every day, for the rest of his entire life?
Well, it sort of reminds me of reading the local newspapers, and realising that the same story you read several weeks earlier will have mysteriously been reprinted... with only a few minor variations, such as the locality in which the near-fatal accident took place, or the exact amount of damage caused when a 13-storey crane suddenly keeled over and collapsed onto the nearest building... for the umpteenth time.

This week, the headline was: “Tower crane collapses at St Julian’s – no injuries.”
Last February it was: “Crane collapses onto Dominican convent in Safi: luky escape” (or something similar, anyway). And the time before? “Tower crane collapses in Sliema – nobody hurt.”
On yet another occasion, I seem to remember it was scaffolding, and not a tower crane, that collapsed unexpectedly onto passers-by bang in the middle of Malta’s busiest shopping area. And another time it was a cement screed shuttering (“kontrabejt”) which collapsed in Hamrun, killing two people and eliciting reams of newsprint about the need for an overhaul of safety procedures on construction sites... without, of course, any noticeable outcome.
The next headline? Impossible to predict with any certainty, but let’s be honest: will any of you be genuinely surprised to read a future headline such as: ‘Crane collapses onto children’s hospital: 50 buried alive under rubble’...?

Personally, I think it’s only a matter of time. And when it happens: boy, oh boy. I can see it all now – the mindless, superstitious, po-faced funeral sermons, urging hysterical mourners to accept their loss with fatalistic resignation... as though the accident were an “act of God”, instead of the direct result of criminal negligence on the part of the crane operator... if indeed the responsibility rests with him.
Nor will anyone turn to the Occupational Health and Safety Authority for an explanation. After all, the OHSA is too busy issuing “guidelines” and “codes of practice” for the building industry – which, on closer inspection, turn out to be non-binding in any legal sense, and as a result are perfectly useless.
Besides, was it not the same OHSA to publicly admit it doesn’t have the resources to carry out inspections on building sites, so that practically every construction project on the entire island is now a gratuitous free for all... ?

But back to those blasted 13-storey tower cranes that just keep collapsing all over the place – sometimes destroying people’s homes, sometimes landing on the same site currently under construction, sometimes ripping through several storeys of an adjacent apartment block... and invariably without anyone so much as batting an eyelid. For all the world as though cranes were expected to simply collapse every now and again; like it was the most natural thing in the world....

Well, sorry folks, but it’s not natural, and in any self-respecting country these accidents would be subject to a serious inquiry. And this becomes infinitely more urgent in view of the sheer number of tower cranes currently towering over a construction project near you.
OK, allow me to explain. From my bedroom window (I happen to now reside in an obscure backwater of Ta’ Xbiex known to the locals as “Gzira”) I can count no fewer than 11 of the damn things, jutting out from the Sliema skyline like crucifixes. And using state of the art technology, I can now calculate the precise odds of surviving in a town as precariously life-threatening as Sliema.

It works like this: first, count all the cranes that haven’t yet collapsed onto nearby buildings. Let’s take my own estimate of 11 as a working model for the Sliema area (there are probably a good deal more, hidden behind the steadily rising mass of unspeakably ugly apartment blocks). You will find that each of these enormous, 500-tonne steel monstrosities occupies only a very small footprint in relation to its height – often not much larger than a medium-sized Transit van. This in turn is usually held in place by an unsightly mass of enormous concrete blocks, making a perfectly functional fulcrum. Archimedes’ Principle can then be applied to calculate the precise force required to knock one of those things over. I can assure you all that it doesn’t actually amount to very much.

Step two: download Google Earth and zoom in directly on the satellite images of Sliema... close enough to be able to make out the base of each individual crane. Now take out the compasses from your long-forgotten geometry set, and, using the crane block as the precise centre, draw circles around each of these 11 points. The radius of each circle should correspond exactly to the crane’s height, which is usually between 10 and 14 storeys (let’s round it off to 120 feet)... converted to fit the precise scale of your map.
The resulting circular areas now represent the approximate “danger zone” of each individual crane: so that any residence, hotel, apartment, apart-hotel, church, chapel, hospital, school, shop, restaurant or bar that falls within any of those circles, could conceivably bear the full brunt of the total weight in case of sudden crane collapse.
Now, if you are a paranoid nut like me, you will also draw an additional, wider-radius circle for each individual crane. This outer circle represents the potential danger zone for additional debris that may spread outwards in the event of an accident (to give a practical example: crane falls onto building; building’s outer wall collapses onto area outside immediate danger zone, etc.)

OK. If you followed the above instructions to the letter, you will by now have a mental satellite image of Sliema townscape, with 11 great big concentric circles mushrooming all over it. The inner circles represent the ‘high-risk’ areas, and the outer the low. You will find that some of these circles will overlap like Venn diagrams, especially towards the eastern end of the map (where most of the construction is currently taking place). These constitute unacceptably high danger levels, exposed to the risk of more than one collapsing crane. And if there are any areas overlapped by numerous circles (something tells me this shall soon apply to the entire Qui Si Sana peninsula), well, you can simply multiply the risk factor accordingly.
So, now that you have finally mapped out the exact risk factor living in Sliema in the 21st century, five years after joining the European Union... how does it look? Does it still strike you as a particularly safe place to live? Can you sleep comfortably at night, knowing that a 120-foot crane is currently being operated by Captain Caveman’s less articulate cousin, right over your head?

Meanwhile, just to make you feel a whole lot more comfortable in your own home, consider also the following excerpt from an article about the Safi crane collapse last February... and the inherent difficulties when it comes to apportioning blame in the event of such an accident repeating itself:

“Preliminary investigations suggest there was negligence... however, it was still early to specify who the (legal action) would involve. It could be the developer, the contractor, the project coordinator and supervisor, the crane owner or its operator...
“Establishing responsibility for crane use was not that clear cut. According to the different sets of regulations referring to cranes, issued under the OHSA Act 2000, legal responsibility could be shouldered by different people, depending on the circumstances...”

Great. So there are different and apparently contradictory regulations involving cranes on building sites... which in turn make it practically impossible to determine whose fault it is whenever people get killed or maimed in accidents like the ones outlined above.
And guess what? Instead of falling over ourselves in the mad scramble to get that blasted legislation up and running in time to save a few lives, we do... nothing.
That’s right: we just take it easy, like the ‘Inglizi’. After all, who cares about a few human lives lost here and there? (Unless we’re talking about unborn babies... the only category of human being whose life is actually worth anything in Malta.)
No, let’s just keep things exactly the way they are, with non-binding, contradictory regulations designed specifically to allow building contractors (many of whom, by the way, have gone on record in this newspaper as having secretly financed both political parties) to carry on laughing all the way to the bank.
For that, my dear, doomed reader, is the only thing that has ever really mattered.


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