Some buildings, including 900 guests at the Parker Meridien hotel, were being evacuated as a precaution and the streets below were cleared, but there were no immediate reports of injuries. City officials didn't have a number on how many people were told to leave.
Authorities received a call about the collapse at around 2 p.m. as conditions worsened from the approaching Hurricane Sandy. Meteorologists said winds atop the 74-story building could have been close to 95 mph at the time.
The nearly completed high-rise is known as One57 and is in one of the city's most desirable neighborhoods, near Carnegie Hall, Columbus Circle and Central Park. It had been inspected, along with other city cranes, on Friday and was found to be ready for the weather.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said later Monday it wasn't clear why the accident happened.
"It's conceivable that nobody did anything wrong and there was no malfunction, it was just a strange gust of wind," Bloomberg said.
Engineers and inspectors were planning to hike up 74 flights of stairs to examine the crane. The harrowing inspection was being undertaken by experts who are "the best of the best," city Buildings Department spokesman Tony Sclafani said.
Lend Lease, one of the largest construction companies in the city, is construction manager for the project. Bloomberg was careful not to blame the company, and said it would be days before officials figured out what happened.
A spokeswoman for Lend Lease said the company was working with city officials to secure the structure but the weather remained severe. There was no immediate response to a message left with the developer, Extell Development. A phone number for the company that owns the crane, Pinnacle Industries II LLC, rang unanswered.
The New York Times recently called the building a "global billionaires' club" because the nine full-floor apartments near the top have all been sold to billionaires. Among them are two duplexes under contract for more than $90 million each.
Shannon Kaye, 96, lives in the building next door.
"We heard a noise, but we didn't know what it was," she said. Minutes later, she and her neighbors were told to leave.
"I never liked that building, looking down into my bedroom," she said. "I always had the feeling that something would come falling down from it."
The Buildings Department had suspended work at the building at 5 p.m. Saturday. It reminded contractors and property owners across the city to secure construction sites and buildings.
Bloomberg said the city inspected the site after the crane was secured.
"Just because it's inspected doesn't guarantee that God doesn't do things or that metal doesn't fail. There is no reason to suspect at this point in time that the inspection wasn't adequate," Bloomberg said.
City Department of Buildings records show a Sept. 21 complaint that a crane at the site was leaking oil onto the roof of an adjacent building; inspectors said a loose fitting was responsible. The fitting was being repaired and a cleanup was under way by the time inspectors arrived.
In April, the agency got a complaint that the heavy ball at the tip of a crane at the site came loose and hit the materials it was trying to lift, knocking some of them onto an adjacent building's scaffolding. Officials stopped work at the site for a day and issued a violation notice, records show.
Construction cranes have been a source of safety worries in the city since two giant rigs collapsed within two months of each other in Manhattan in 2008, killing a total of nine people.
Those accidents spurred the resignation of the city's buildings commissioner and fueled new safety measures, including hiring more inspectors and expanding training requirements and inspection checklists.
Another crane fell and killed a worker this April at a construction site for a new subway line. That rig was exempt from most city construction safety rules because it was working for a state-overseen agency that runs the subway system.
Like Monday's accident, one of the 2008 crane collapses also centered on the rig's long, mobile arm, known as a boom. In the May 2008 accident, the boom broke off a roughly 200-foot-tall rig, crashed into a nearby building and plummeted to the ground.
Prosecutors blamed that collapse on what they called a penny-pinching repair to a crucial component that lets the boom swivel. Lawyers for that crane's owner, who ultimately was acquitted of manslaughter charges, said the operator made a mistake that tipped the boom over backward and snapped it.
Mary Costello, the Senior Vice President and Head of Corporate Affairs at Lend Lease released a statement on the crane collapse, saying,
"At approximately 2:35pm today, the One57 tower crane boom became damaged by the high winds of hurricane Sandy. The hurricane storm winds have pushed the crane boom over the cab section of the high rise crane at One 57th Street.
NYC emergency personnel are on site working to get people away from any potential impact area should any additional failure take place.
The crane was last inspected on Friday, October 26 by the Operating Engineer from Postroad Ironworks following a checklist provided by the Engineer of Record.
We are working with structural engineers and the DOB on evaluating any additional measures that can be taken to secure the boom and crane structure. Current weather and wind conditions remain very severe."
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