Monday, March 29, 1999

Crane operator has 'helicopter' view

Rocky Shamblin sits atop a 180-foot tower and moves materials to build Paul Brown Stadium

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tower crane operator Rocky Shamblin says sitting at his job is "like being in a helicopter. The view is great."
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        Twenty-nine years ago, Rocky Shamblin grabbed a joy stick and helped hoist to completion a snazzy new state-of-the-sport Riverfront Stadium.

        Today, he drives a half-hour to the same riverfront, climbs another half-hour up 188 ladder rungs to his 180-foot-high perch and moves steel and concrete and other materials for the new football stadium.

        Mr. Shamblin, a tower crane operator, mans his assigned post as many as 12 hours a day near the top of a skeletal skyscraper at the often-muddy construction site east of the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge.

        Just Rocky and his two-way radio, his link to subcontractor ground crews. He has a cell phone for the rest of the world, a commercial radio for music, a milk jug for nature calls, cleaning supplies for housekeeping and a heater. All in a 25-square-foot, glass-walled control cabin.

Shamblin climbs 188 steps everyday to his crane cab.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        Did we mention 180 feet — or two 30-yard Blake to Pickens completions — in the air?

        “Yeah, I'm afraid of heights,” Mr. Shamblin blurts without hesitation. “I think anybody that says he's not is a liar.

        “What I have is respect for heights. You don't want to go down with one of these things.”

        Going down is a possibility, says Larry Reynolds, district representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 18, Cincinnati.

        Especially during assembly, and especially when an already-assembled jib (horizontal framework) and control booth are raised and tower (vertical) sections are added at the base.

        “It's important to have people who know how to jack 'em,” Mr. Reynolds says. “If you're up there when one of those things comes down, you're gone.”

Package deal
        The Carlisle Crane Co. of Wilder, which owns all four tower cranes at work on the Paul Brown Stadium site, leases them to general contractor Turner Construction Co. for tens of thousands of dollars a month. Delivery, set up and operation are included in the deal. Specific amounts were not disclosed.

        Mr. Shamblin, who has worked for Carlisle for 26 years, says he likes the job.

        “It's a thrill every time I come up,” he says. “It's like being in a helicopter. The view is great.”

        As a 47-year-old cancer veteran (“They cut out half of my right lung”), he takes his time on the caged zig-zag ladders leading to his no-frills control cab. At 6:30 a.m., climbing 188 ladder steps is a taxing way to start a long day.

        The tower assembly includes rest platforms every 20 feet, where Mr. Shamblin pauses occasionally. When he reaches his destination, he usually stays there.

Time flies
        “Sometimes I come down for lunch,” he says. “Usually not ... Usually I take a sandwich up with me — something I can hold in one hand and still operate the hoist with the other. Often, he takes a can of soup to his perch and warms it on the space heater. Beverages are generally limited to water.

        “You have to watch your diet during the week and train your body to go” to the bathroom at convenient times, he says.

        Operating a tower crane is a high-demand job, says Mr. Reynolds, the union rep.

        “Everybody wants to lift all day,” he says, referring to subcontractors, jockeying for access to the tower cranes and their operators. “The time goes by so fast . . . before you know it, you're tired and it's time to go home.”

        Clay Thoreson, tower crane and hoist application specialist at Carlisle, says it takes special skills to operate a tower crane. “You need good eyes. You have to have good depth perception.”

        As an aid, operators sometimes use spray paint to mark cables so they'll know when the block (and crucial lifting hook) is a specified distance from the ground.

        Mr. Shamblin, who is licensed — and vision-tested — to drive commercial trucks in Ohio, wears prescription sunglasses on the job. The rest of his ensemble: T-shirt, jeans, hard hat and pony tail.

        Most tower crane operators on jobs like the stadium project are “seasoned, experienced” tradesmen, Mr. Thoreson says. “Mid-30s to mid-50s.” Each is teamed with an oiler/apprentice who works with him on an assigned crane.

Need a lift?
        As there are only so many tower cranes operating at a given time, there, too, are only so many crane operators available.

        “A lot of people think they want this job,” Mr. Reynolds says. “But they change their minds once they get up here.”

        It's a highly sought job, Mr. Thoreson says. “Certainly, there's a considerable amount of pride in that cabin.”

        Base pay for an operator — $22.09 an hour — elevates along with the work positions. An employee working at 180-250 feet, for instance, makes 25 cents more than one at 150-180 feet. They get paid time-and-a-half after eight hours and on Saturdays and double time on Sundays and holidays.

        There are no snow days. “We work through all kinds of weather,” Mr. Shamblin says, even when snow storms ice up the ladder rungs leading to his tower in the sky.

        Rocky Shamblin of Cherry Grove always knew who he was and what he was going to be.

        Even though he started out as somebody else.

        “My name was Danny when I was born,” he says. “For about two hours — 'til my dad came in and changed it.”

        His father, Ray Shamblin, a former crane operator who now lives in North Miami Beach, Fla., was a big fan of boxer Rocky Marciano.

        Ray Shamblin decided his son would be a Rocky, and Rocky later decided he would be a crane operator, just like his dad. The two worked together on numerous construction projects, including Riverfront Stadium, now Cinergy Field.

        “I lied about my age to get my first job — when I was 16,” Rocky says.

        He likes to believe his son, Cody, now 13, also will run cranes for a living. The two of them like to race motorcycles (flat track) when they can.


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