Two window washers escaped disaster Thursday morning after their scaffolding gave way, leaving them dangling at the top of a 16-story Mission Bay condominium complex for about 25 minutes before they were rescued.
The drama unfolded at the Arterra building at 300 Berry St., leaving the two men who had been pressure-washing the outside of the building hanging by their safety harnesses as the scaffolding slunk down vertically between the 16th and 14th floors.
Onlookers gasped as fire crews rushed to the building just after 8:30 a.m.
Firefighters were able to pull both men to safety — one through a 14th-story window and the other onto the roof of the building — about a half-hour later, according to Fire Department Lt. Mindy Talmadge.
The workers were hospitalized with minor to serious injuries.
The harnesses saved two lives, as the men were facing about a 10-story drop onto a neighboring building, Talmadge said.
“I’m just glad they’re okay,” said Rodney Blanchard, an AT&T installer and repairman who had a job in the building and filmed the harrowing scene on his cellphone.
The men worked for South San Francisco-based Capital Building Maintenance, and were identified by company owner Eric Huber as Raul Aguilar and his nephew Benito Aguilar.
Huber visited the men at San Francisco General Hospital. Raul Aguilar suffered cuts on the forehead and Benito Aguilar injured his arm and leg, he said.
The men were shaken up but are doing well, and will likely return to work in a few weeks, Huber said.
“They were pretty cool,” Huber said. “I don’t think they realized … it happened so quickly. That’s a long time to be hanging there — they said it felt like hours.”
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health is investigating the cause of the incident.
According to Huber, one of the davits — metal arms attached to the top of the building that are used to lower the window-washing scaffolding — snapped.
“The weld broke and the whole entire davit ripped out of the base and ended up on the ground,” he said.
Huber said he’d never heard of that happening before, and said his company had never had any similar problems.
According to Huber, the davits are owned by the property, not his company. He added that a third-party scaffold-inspection company routinely certifies the equipment is safe before washing begins.
“I’m not blaming the testing company,” he said. “The davit failed … and we followed Cal-OSHA requirements, our guys were harnessed.”
A Cal-OSHA investigation is likely to last a few months, a spokeswoman said.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has opened an investigation into Thursday’s potentially deadly window-washing mishap.
An investigator was at the scene shortly after the incident, beginning an analysis of the site, Cal-OSHA spokeswoman Erika Monterroza said. That will be followed up by interviews with the injured workers, their employer and other employees of the company, as well as reviews of the company’s training and safety protocols, she said.
“They’ve got a pretty clean record,” Monterroza said of the window-washing company, South San Francisco-based Capital Building Maintenance. The company was only cited once in the past five years — a 2009 infraction related to the use of a “manual boat swing chair” — resulting in a $200 fine, she said.
The company’s owner has said he believes Thursday’s accident was related to a broken piece of equipment attached to the roof of the building. He said that piece, called a davit, belongs to the building owner.
“That will definitely be part of our investigative process,” Cal-OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer said.
Window washers, it turns out, are a hardy bunch.
Dec. 7, 2007: A 37-year-old window washer survived a 47-story fall from a Manhattan apartment building. Despite being severely injured, the man lived, but his 30-year-old brother, who was with him washing the building, did not.
Nov. 19, 2009: A 34-year-old window washer fell eight stories from a building in downtown Seattle, surviving with only a broken finger and bruises.
Source: Media reports