LONG BEACH — When 51-year-old Steve Marinkovich died of a heart attack at the controls of a giant port crane here last year, concern rippled through the ranks of crane drivers on the San Pedro Bay waterfront.
The drivers, veteran longshoremen making $50,000 a year and more as their union's most skilled workers, heard that a stricken Marinkovich had been stranded 80 feet in the air, dangling in the crane operator's booth above a cargo ship he'd just begun to unload.
"Right now with all these strokes and heart attacks, it scares the (heck) out of you," driver Frank DiMeglio, 56, said recently as he peered through windows in the bottom of a small operator's booth near the top of a 140-foot crane.
"If something should happen, God forbid, if I should have a stroke, God forbid, they'll never get me out of here," said DiMeglio, flipping a switch to lock a crane hoist into a 20-foot-long steel container far below.
Indications are that Marinkovich, who collapsed minutes after climbing a 100-step staircase from the dock to his operator's booth, could not have been saved in any case. Port and paramedic reports say the Long Beach Container Terminal Co. driver did not respond when co-workers, then paramedics, tried to resuscitate him.
"The information we have is that he suffered a massive coronary and nothing would have saved him," said John Jeffrey, president of Long Beach Container Terminal.
Jeffrey maintained that co-workers raced up the stairs and reached Marinkovich within two minutes of his attack. The Marinkovich family has not filed a lawsuit against the terminal or the port, spokesmen said.
But the impact of the crane driver's death is being felt in Sacramento, where an Assembly bill backed by the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union calls for installation of elevators on the 42 cranes in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.
Nate DiBiasi, lobbyist for the union's Local 13 in Wilmington, said the bill by Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne) is needed because the stairways that routinely take 5 to 10 minutes to climb prohibit a quick response in an emergency.
Stairs Delayed Paramedics
"I don't know if (Marinkovich's) heart attack was attributed to the climb," DiBiasi said. "But the question always arises: If the paramedics had been able to get to him (faster), would they have been able to save his life? They had to climb all the way up to the gondola."
The proposed legislation, scheduled for its first committee hearing April 11, has not drawn much fire, even though the cost of the elevators would be in the millions. DiBiasi said each elevator would cost $50,000, but Jeffrey and Port of Los Angeles spokesmen said the cost is about $100,000 each.
The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, which own half of the 42 cranes, have not taken positions on the bill, and there are indications that some terminal operators may not fight the proposal.
Jeffrey, for one, said that if the two large cranes he leases from the Port of Long Beach were his company's, he would recommend installation of the elevators.
Safety issues aside, the elevators would pay for themselves by allowing mechanics to repair cranes more quickly, he said. Shiploading activities stop cold when cranes are broken, he said.
Some Ports Have Elevators
Some ports in Europe and Australia as well as those in Baltimore, Galveston, Tex., and Charleston, S.C., already have crane elevators. New cranes with elevators are scheduled for delivery in Long Beach, Seattle and Tacoma, DiBiasi said.
John MacEvoy, a longtime maritime industry spokesman locally, also expressed some sympathy for the crane drivers' situation. "Let's face it," he said, "the climb up to that control cab is a little hard on a guy. Imagine climbing a set of stairs on a 10-story building and that'll give you some idea.
"But it's like taking a little bit of the bitter with the sweet," MacEvoy said, "because the crane operators are the highest-paid men in the harbor."
Johnny Espinosa, 59, a licensed crane operator as well as Local 13's business agent, insisted, however, that the need for elevators is real. "I run five miles every noon, but by the time I climb to the top (of a crane), I'm gasping for air. We have individuals heavier than me, and I say, 'My God, (he) isn't going to make it.' "
Reluctant to Complain
Still, New York-born DiMeglio, the son of an Italian immigrant, seemed uncomfortable complaining about climbing stairs once or twice a day, because he is generally pleased with his position high above the harbor.
"Naw, this climb ain't bad," he said, glancing sideways in the padded vinyl operator's chair in the 6-by-12-foot crane gondola. "You don't try to make it in one jump. I take two rests on the way up. It takes me 8 to 12 minutes. I'm not in a hurry."
DiMeglio, who has spent two decades on the wharves, remembers when longshoremen were not among the best-paid workers and when cotton bales and spider-ridden banana stalks were bucked by hand.