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Beam or Crane, These Are the High-Wire Guys

Masters of risk and teamwork, they top off downtown L.A.'s new Caltrans building, then it's on to the next job.

June 28, 2003|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

Circusgoers pay to see tightrope walkers in spangles and tights make that heart-in-the-stomach creep.

Construction workers Aaron Brownell and Brandon Buffington, whose act is every bit as death-defying, have been doing it for free high above downtown Los Angeles every day for the last few months at the site of the new 13-story district headquarters of the California Department of Transportation.

Costumed in blue jeans and dirt-streaked T-shirts with leather tool belts slung low, Brownell and Buffington are known in the construction trade as "connectors." They guide into place the huge steel beams that form the skeleton of the building, quickly bolt each beam onto a vertical column, then scamper across the beam -- high above the street -- to release the hook that steered it into place. No net.

"You're the stars of the job," Brownell said with a slight smile.

Beam walkers for four years, Buffington and Brownell, both 23, have been partners for the last two. Both grew up locally and started out by learning to weld and bolt. Lithe, with tattoos snaking down their forearms, they move as many as 70 pieces of steel a day.

The secret to cheating death, they say, is anticipating what the other needs to do to catch and steady a beam. Still, Buffington carries a kind of talisman to get him home safely each day: a small photograph of his 4-month-old son taped inside his hard hat.

"Sometimes it's scary up there," Buffington admitted quietly.

Above Buffington and Brownell -- way above them -- tower crane operators Raymond Austin and Richard Fuller gently swing those 2- to 5-ton beams like plastic pickup sticks.

At 53, Fuller is not only one of the oldest tower crane operators around. He and Austin, 49, are among a tiny elite, two of perhaps 10 such veterans in the Los Angeles-Orange County area. Together they've put in nearly 50 years of eight-hour shifts, alone in the sky.

"I've got the best seat in the house," Fuller said. "It's quiet up there; nobody bothers you."

"Some guys won't go over five floors," Austin said. "We may not walk on water, but we can damn sure put our foot down without sinking."

Big men with easy smiles, Austin and Fuller may be blase about heart-stopping heights and the crane's constant bouncing and swaying from the wind -- as Fuller says, wryly, "after 30 feet, it really doesn't matter." But away from the job they are as health-conscious as any desk-bound commuter, shying away from spicy foods and worrying about getting to bed early so they can be sharp the next morning when they bear a sobering responsibility to the people below them. An errant swing of a 10,000-pound beam can crush a person in an instant.

Austin and Fuller often work the two cranes on the Caltrans site independently. But in tandem they've lifted and positioned 65 extra-long girders -- each 41,500 pounds. These "two-crane picks" require the precision of synchronized swimmers.

Each works alone in the small glassed-in cab at the top of the tower -- a 300-rung climb up an open-air ladder. In slow moments they enjoy each other's golf magazines and rock 'n' roll tapes, and must use a jug that substitutes for a bathroom. Austin said Fuller, with whom he's partnered before, is dependable and doesn't complain.

Still, these men have been frightened. Austin rode out the 1987 Whittier earthquake in the crane cab while building a Century City hotel. He saw piles of iron start to move and "guys run off the job like rats off a ship. But you can't climb down; you can't jump. You just have to wait." While the crane's normal swaying and bobbing doesn't faze him, "I don't care for the cable car rides at Disneyland."

Fuller admits to "butterflies" when he rides a small wire basket out onto the swaying jib to change the airplane warning lights or grease the pulley that controls the hook. He also worried about what he'd find when he climbed up after a joy rider commandeered the crane one night last month. The cab window was smashed and the crane's hook was dropped onto the building's top floor before police and site managers shut off the rig's electricity, talked the person down and arrested him.

Together, crane operators Fuller and Austin, and beam walkers Buffington and Brownell, have handled every one of the 8,200 steel pieces installed at the site, on 1st and Main streets.

Recently, nearly all of the project's 225 construction workers, along with assorted state and local officials, watched from the ground as Brownell and Buffington bolted the final beam onto the rooftop. Austin was where he usually is: 340 feet up and alone in the crane cab, steering the 200-foot jib that dangles the giant hook. Fuller, who had already finished his shift on the site's other tower crane, snapped photos from street level.

Caltrans' new home won't open for a year, but with the last beam in place, Brownell and Buffington have moved on. The crane men will soon follow -- Austin for a few weeks of sleep-in mornings, followed by a round of golf, and Fuller to the Sierra for some fishing.

Fuller will add his snapshots of this job to a large photo collection that includes the Getty Center and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, where he swung the altar into place. Austin's list includes the Ronald Reagan State Building and the Roybal Federal Building downtown, along with projects at UCLA and Los Angeles International Airport.

Other men will disassemble the leased cranes into giant erector-set pieces and truck them to a Las Vegas storage yard. Those who missed the show here can catch the next act as the new county hospital and USC medical school complex rises in Boyle Heights.

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