Jul. 16th, 2009

joreth: (Super Tech)

I don't write too much about my work, but I think most of you who read this know what I do for a living.

I'm a stagehand, an entertainment technician, an electrician, a camera operator, a spotlight operator, a forklift driver, and sometimes a rigger. I work in the entertainment industry as a freelancer, which means I have no health insurance or steady pay. I work long hours (for good money) and most of it is manual labor. This is more than a job for me, this is my passion. My worst day at this job is better than my best day at any other job I've ever had (and I've had a lot!). Only a very few jobs have ever come close in satisfaction levels, but their pay sucked big donkey balls.

My job is a dangerous job. We work with heavy machinery and a lot of untrained laborers. We mostly follow OSHA safety guidelines, but only when we have to, and most of us take shortcuts whenever we can get away with it.  I've been known to swing out onto an 8" steel beam, 60 feet in the air, without a harness or safety line to grab something out of reach because it was quicker and cheaper than getting a giant boom lift into the building to reach it.  I've been known to climb out of my scissor lift and sit on the truss 40 feet in the air so I could reach the light I was trying to aim at the stage.  We've all been known to shimmy up a truss or set leg or video wall to plug something in rather than get a ladder.

In the case of this article, Madonna's tour was supposed to start in France, but the roof of the stage collapsed, killing 1 and injuring 9, 2 of which were serious injuries.  It is currently unknown what the cause of the roof collapse was.  For those who don't quite understand, a "roof" is the top of a stage usually used in a concert because they tend to only be built for outdoor shows.  This wasn't the roof of an actual building, it was whatever canopy or top structure was erected temporarily for the show.  These are pretty massive structures, they're not just like oversized tents.  I've built roofs before, and frankly, I'm not really suited for it.  It requires much more strength and endurance to get those pylons and ground support structures erected than I have to offer.  It's a complex system that someone had to do a lot of math to get right, and then the riggers had to do a lot of double-checking to make sure it was built right.  And sometimes things go wrong.

It's sort of a running joke in my business - stagehands don't retire, they die on the job.  I fully expect that this will be how I meet my end someday.  3 of my fellow stagehands have lost their lives in the past year - and not just 3 stagehands somewhere in the world, but 3 guys I knew, guys I worked with, laughed with, joked with, and argued with.  One had a heart attack while on a beam, pulling up a chain motor.  He actually sat down on the beam while having his heart attack and finished pulling up the motor, rather than let it fall to the stage (the guy in the middle in the picture).  The others died in accidents.

3 more accidents killed stagehands somewhere in the world this year in such a way that it made headline news in all the industry rags (magazines and newspapers).  One was a very young kid, just barely over 18 but under 21 I think, who got electrocuted when his boom lift drove over an exposed electrical cable and the whole machine became electrified.  There was nowhere for him to go to escape it, he was in a giant metal basket that was thrumming with enough voltage to kill him.  This, of course, is why we're supposed to have a license to drive these things, and in order to get a license, we're supposed to take a safety course that includes how to watch out for things and not drive over stuff on the ground.

We actually have a very low death toll, considering all the risks we take.  Most of our guys really just die of heart attacks and strokes due to hard living, poor diet, drugs, tobacco and alcohol.  I'm careful to avoid all that, but I can't always avoid the jobsite dangers.  Last year, I was working this one show that had so many people and so many things happening at once that an accident was just inevitable. 

They had these massive truss carts - flatbeds with wheels that sticks of truss (see the picture if you don't know what truss is) were stacked onto.  Normally we have truss carts that are 2 or 4 sticks wide, and only 5-8 sticks high.  Anything bigger and we can't get them through doorways, including the trucks they come on.  But these where huge.  We weren't using standard 1-foot-square truss or even 18"-rectangle truss.  They were these monster pieces of truss and they were stacked maybe 12 feet in the air.  The building's electricians had already laid down all their electrical cables and taped them to the floor, and the floor was a giant spiderweb of cords.  We had to push one of these truss carts from where it had been stored temporarily to the area where we would eventually build the truss structure, over this cable spiderweb on the floor, because each individual truss stick was too heavy to carry over one by one (we could have, but the point of putting them on wheels is so that we didn't have to - work smarter, not harder). 

Well, it wouldn't have been so bad, just a little annoying and a little extra effort to push that weight over so many cables, except someone had the bright idea to remove the strap that held all the truss sticks together and to the flatbed.  So they were just sitting stacked on top of each other freely.  So we had about 25 guys all around this truss cart, pushing it across the floor.  When suddenly, one of the 1x4 pieces of wood that had wheels on it cracked under the pressure, and when we hit a cable, the wheels just turned themselves underneath the flatbed and the whole pile of truss sticks tilted.

Luckily for me, I was on the front edge (well, not just lucky because I know better - I've seen truss carts go over before) so I could have gotten out from under it, had it tilted in my direction.  But even luckier for me, I was on the side it was tilting away from.  So I immediately jumped onto the lower piece of truss and reached up as high as I could to keep the top piece from sliding off and threw my weight backwards to counterbalance the tower and keep it from falling over.  The problem was that there were still 3 rows of truss above my reach.  Others on my side did the same thing, and that's probably the only thing that saved his life.

On the other side, almost everyone scrambled out of the way as the top pieces of truss slid off and fell to the ground.  Some of the guys got hit with glancing blows.  But one guy, the guy in the exact middle of the length of truss, did not scramble away fast enough.  He put his arms up over his head just as a piece came square down on top of him.  Then, before he could react, the rest of the pieces I couldn't reach came down on top of him too and he disappeared under a pile of metal.

Well, those of us on the upper side, of course, started yelling to get out of the way because we were losing our grips.  The tower continued to tilt and we were clearly losing the battle to keep it upright.  That tower outweighed us all combined.  A couple of guys started flinging fallen truss aside to drag out the unfortunate kid underneath, and the second they got him free of the rubble, someone yelled "CLEAR!" and the rest of us jumped off the leaning tower, which promptly fell over in a cacophany of ringing as steel hit concrete.

By some unknown stroke of luck, the kid who got buried actually survived.  Not only did he survive, but his trip to the hospital was not an overnight trip.  He had some bruising and a concussion, but nothing broken, or so I heard later that night.  The sad part was that this was his second gig ever.  He was young and new and didn't know enough not to walk next to a truss cart in the middle of the length.

I have a dozen stories like this, so when I read in the news about some other accident somewhere else, I am forcibly reminded of my own mortality.  I've had my brushes with death, and I've been close to others who have had theirs.  This is where being an atheist really is embracing an uncomfortable truth in favor over a comfortable lie, because I've had to face that void on more than one occasion, and sometimes I dearly wish I could believe in fantasies - I wouldn't have to face that horrible concept of nothingness.  Accidents don't happen very often, most of us really are careful, and anyone who isn't gets an earful of the largest, loudest, meanest stagehand around.  But it's a dangerous job and accidents do happen.

And I still wouldn't trade my life or my job for any other in the world.


A second man has succumbed to his injuries.  More information about the collapse - apparently the roof collapsed while 4 cranes were in the process of raising it in the air.  How or why is still unknown.  A French local was the first to die, and now a Briton has died, leaving an American still critically injured, with two people requiring surgery and 7 people being treated and released.


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