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Ironworkers on Top of 27-Story High-Rise Hang On as Quake Hits

October 04, 1987|CHRIS WOODYARD | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Like many others around Southern California, Jim McGuire was caught in a high-rise building when last week's earthquake struck. But the 30-year-old ironworker faced a special problem--no walls, no ceiling and no place to go.

Ironworkers like McGuire toil on the metal skeletons as the Long Beach skyline pushes higher. The job requires constant attention amid the clatter of hammers, rat-a-tat of rivet guns and hissing of cutting torches. A careless step can be fatal.

But the major earthquake proved the ultimate test of the quality of their craftsmanship.

The quake sent workers scrambling for beams or for stairs. Some hit the deck. The structures held and no injuries were reported.

'Not an E-Ticket Ride'

"It was definitely not an E-ticket ride," said McGuire, referring to the ticket designation that used to buy the best rides at Disneyland in his hometown of Anaheim.

McGuire was among the workers constructing the first tower of the World Trade Center who were caught on the top--27 stories high--when the temblor struck. A few blocks east on Ocean Boulevard, another crew of hard-hatted ironworkers were putting up the 20th floor of the expansive new Shoreline Square.

Workers said they had thought about how they would react in an earthquake if caught on the upper stories during construction, but all they could do when Thursday's temblor struck was to hang on and hope the shaking would stop. Some workers estimated that the steel members swayed as much as six inches. Art Pecaro, an ironworker for 14 years, rushed to latch onto a column on the 25th floor of the Trade Center's skeleton where he was joined by general foreman Mack Sorensen.

"A lot of guys got scared and ran down the stairs," said Pecaro, 44, of Rancho Cucamonga. "It was like a chain reaction."

For Sorensen, 31, of Long Beach, the waves of motion felt all too familiar. He was working on Wilshire Boulevard in December, 1985, when a stack of steel girders plunged through 11 stories of a high-rise building under construction, killing three workers.

"I was on the building that collapsed. It felt just the same," he said. "It felt like they dropped a load of steel."

Once the temblor had passed and Sorensen realized what happened, he said he led his crew off the structure. "I made all my guys come down. I got all pretty young kids and they were pretty scared."

Hit the Deck

Rather than grasp a girder or race for the stairs, welding inspector Ken Root said he simply hit the deck on the 27th floor.

"I had just got off the manlift," the elevator used at the construction site, when the quake began, Root said. "I laid flat on the deck."

Around him, he said, the derrick and steel columns were waving. "We couldn't get down. There was no way we could get off."

It was just the day before the quake, Root explained, that he had "wondered what I would do if it ever happened." Now, he has concluded, "There ain't much you can do."

Work Stopped by Midday

At the Shoreline Square construction site, most of the crew left work by midday rather than have to contend with a network of steel beams that they feared could pull loose in an aftershock.

Ted Putman, 36, of Sunnymead told the Shoreline workers over a walkie-talkie that they were being hit by an earthquake and warned them to get out. Jim Mowrey, 29, of Brea said, "We didn't know what was going on at first." Then, he said, about 20 men ran down the stairs as trash and small debris rained around them. One worker lost his hard hat in the process.

Earthquakes aside, McGuire insisted, "It's safer up there than on a freeway."

That is because ironworkers learn how to stay out of danger. They wear harnesses when precariously perched on a high-rise and every floor has a safety line around the perimeter of the steel framework

During the World Trade Center project, McGuire said only a couple of minor injuries have been reported. Only one drew blood--a guy who hit his thumb with a hammer.

"You have to keep your wits about you. You have to keep in mind where you are at all times," McGuire said.

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