Just before 6 a.m. on a recent weekday, the construction site at The Waterfront Vancouver’s Block 8 was quiet.
Men sat in their vehicles parked in lots across the street from the dark, skeletal apartment building. They waited for their clock to strike the hour, at which time they would don their hard hats and visibility vests, then disappear into the construction site.
But not Randy Anis. He’d already climbed 142 ladder rungs, ascending 130 feet into the Vancouver skyline to his office: a reddish-orange Wolff 7532 German-made tower crane. He wouldn’t be going back down for another eight to nine hours.
His lunch, carried up in a plastic bag, included a sandwich and two bottles of Vitamin water — one ready to drink, the other frozen to keep his sandwich cold. Nothing goes unused. The empty bag and bottles would eventually be needed for bathroom purposes, since there are no toilets atop the crane.
The project: a seven-story, 320,600-square-foot, mixed-use building with 188 multifamily apartments and ground-floor retail.
Employed by Seattle-based Garner Construction, Anis was “rented out” to Robertson & Olson Construction Inc., the Camas-based company and general contractor.
“Strictly a crane escort service, if you will,” said Anis, 35, occasionally puffing an electronic cigarette.
He’s been on the project for a year next month — and the Wolff is the first tower crane he has operated.
Heights don’t scare him. Also, he says there’s comfort in the strength of the crane’s steel.
“I weigh 400 pounds,” he said, “and this is steel neither one of us can afford.”
He is afraid of falling, though. Each morning on the climb up, he checks pins and bolts.
The Arkansas native and Navy veteran previously had experience operating luffing-jib cranes — a shorter crane that has an arm (the jib) with an elbow, so to speak, rather than a tower crane, which has an arm that doesn’t bend. This Wolff’s arm extends 196.2 feet. To personalize it, he reeled up an American flag and a black flag with a pirate skull and crossbones.
Having just returned on Sept. 11 from a weeklong vacation seeing family in Arkansas and other parts of the country, his workload to start was light. Anis started the day by moving a pair of port-a-potties from the top of the building down to the ground so that they could be emptied and cleaned.
Anis’ radio serves as the artery to the men beneath him. He has a screen in his operator cab that allows him to see closer down below and can offer direction to the workers who are tasked with hooking up the port-a-potties.
Unfortunately, the men weren’t armed with radios, making the situation difficult.
“No, not there,” Anis sighed with frustration after telling the men how to hook it up. “Anybody up top have a radio?” he asked again when he got no response.
“It blows my mind — we’ve been on this job about a year and they don’t know how we get these hooked up,” Anis said. After multiple attempts, the two men correctly hooked them onto the hook and chains.
“Sometimes, you have to push them. You gotta insult them a little bit, a little bit of peer pressure,” Anis joked. That’s part of the job as an “eye in the sky,” he said.
“R&O hires someone to operate the crane, but moreover, they want someone to be their eye in the sky to keep the pace of the job moving,” Anis said.
He said in the busier phases of the project, he would do “150 picks a day.” A “pick” refers to picking up and moving something — anything.
After sitting for a while with his feet up, scrolling through photos on his phone, a voice from below beckoned him on the radio.
“Yeah, come on buddy!” Anis excitedly called back. He was ready to move something.
“If you’ve got a few seconds, I’m ready to fly that duct work up,” responded Joe Hendricks, an equipment operator at the site employed by G Builders of Damascus, Ore.
“Ten-four buddy, comin’ at ya,” Anis replied, before slowly swinging around the crane, which makes a loud, robotic-sounding noise as it moves. Then he presses another button to dip down the chains and hook. There’s a honk, too, to alert workers — a loud cartoonish-sounding “awooga.”
“Everybody on this job site’s been briefed that when you hear that horn, the crane’s coming somewhere,” Anis said. “I’m not dodging people left and right. It’s a construction site. There’s a tower crane up. You hear the horn, look up. If you’re in the way, move.”
He carefully maneuvered heating and ventilation materials to workers through a window.
“Every day, we’re doing 20 to 30 picks,” said Hendricks, the equipment operator. “Every single day I need him. We have forklifts that can get material up to like the second floor, but every piece above … that’s all him.”
And there’s a lot to move. Block 8 is scheduled to be completed by April 2019, according to R&O’s website.
While the Vancouver Waterfront Park will open Saturday, there are several other waterfront projects planned. Anis has been carefully documenting the progress from above on his cellphone — sometimes capturing spectacular sunrises.
“It changes the landscape when you see each step of the way, when it just goes from dirt to flattened-out dirt, to dirt with pavement on it. The shrubbery; the landscaping. Even when the light poles go in when the pavers are done along the sidewalks,” Anis said. “It all comes together. Honestly, it’s kind of like watching a time-lapse of a Sim City video game.”
He has a front seat — or sky seat, rather — to Vancouver’s change and growth. This year alone, the city has issued permits for 669 new multifamily units.
Anis and his wife own a house in Vancouver’s Orchards area. One of the reasons he preferred living on this side of the river, despite occasionally working in places like Portland and Seattle, is that it has fewer people.
“Seeing how much real estate that Vancouver has rivals the core of Portland,” he said. “We just have fewer people, which is part of the reason I like it here. But something like this down here is maybe the shot in the arm they need to kind of blow up a bit.”