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What It's Like To Operate A Crane More Than 800 Feet Above Boston05:17
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The two tallest buildings in Boston, 200 Clarendon Street (formerly known as the John Hancock Tower), right, and the Prudential Tower are seen from One Dalton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The two tallest buildings in Boston, 200 Clarendon Street (formerly known as the John Hancock Tower), right, and the Prudential Tower are seen from One Dalton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It's just after 6 a.m. on a recent weekday — and just 17 degrees out.

Two dozen construction workers huddle in hoodies and hardhats in the predawn dark, waiting to take a service elevator to a job site on Boston's third-tallest building.

We're headed up to 61, the highest floor in the towering new luxury development known as One Dalton.

At the top I meet Brett St. Germain, a crane operator of four decades who’s been on this job for the past two-and-a-half years. He's responsible for lifting materials to the building's floors.

I’m hoping to see the crane in action, but St. Germain says this morning’s high winds could be an obstacle. "I have an alarm system," he says. "At 31 miles per hour I get a yellow alert, and at 44 mph it tells me to shut that crane off."

Construction workers load into a freight elevator to begin work in the early morning hours. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Construction workers load into a freight elevator to begin work in the early morning hours. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The crane's mast extends all the way up the side of One Dalton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The crane's mast extends all the way up the side of One Dalton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

So, just how does one get into the cab of a crane more than 800 feet off the ground?

At the very top of One Dalton, there’s an aluminum platform about the size and heft of an extension ladder, jutting out into the void. It’s a bridge to the crane. The handrails are made of pine lumber and the sides are blue plastic mesh draped over the rails.

I look down off the side of the bridge — 61 stories of space between me and the street — then decide it’s better to keep my eyes focused ahead.

On the other side, we’re still more than 100 feet below the crane’s cab. We hulk over the steel tubing into the center of the tower, and start climbing up the first of five ladders — each one taking us 16.5 feet higher.

Crane operator Brett St. Germain looks down as he crosses a bridge from One Dalton's 61st floor to the mast of the crane to begin his workday. He'll have to climb five 16-foot ladders before climbing into the crane's cab. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Crane operator Brett St. Germain looks down as he crosses a bridge from One Dalton's 61st floor to the mast of the crane to begin his workday. He'll have to climb five 16-foot ladders before climbing into the crane's cab. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
(Jesse Costa/WBUR)
(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The air feels thinner up here; I’m so winded, I stop to rest after each floor. The wind is punishing to exposed skin. I forgot to bring a hat and my ears feel like glass. WBUR photographer Jesse Costa says his fingers feel like they’re burning.

Finally we make it to the top.

There’s a sunrise and the whole Greater Boston area is on display. The Prudential building fills your field of vision in one direction. To the north you can see all of Cambridge. To the west you can look down onto the field in Fenway Park. And to the east are the Boston Harbor Islands — every one of which you can see.

For St. Germain, who’s been running cranes for 40 years, it’s all in a day’s work.

(Jesse Costa/WBUR)
(Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Crane operator Brett St. Germain maneuvers the crane around to pick up some materials on the roof of One Dalton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Crane operator Brett St. Germain maneuvers the crane around to pick up some materials on the roof of One Dalton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"As soon as it seems dull and mundane that you see the same thing every day, then you'll see a morning where you'll see a sunrise or something that's unbelievable, you know what I mean? Or some of the storms that come through and I get the bird’s eye view."

St. Germain says he feels a sense of ownership when looking at the buildings he’s worked on.

Four years after breaking ground, Suffolk Construction says One Dalton is nearly complete. The Four Seasons hotel on the first floors is expected to open in April, followed by luxury condos.

At this stage, St. Germain is nearly finished hoisting the 12-foot glass windows that serve as the building’s exterior walls. He lifts the glass with the crane and places it so workers can position the panels into their frames.

But the giant glass rectangles can act like kites, and this morning, it’s too windy.

Finally a foreman radios in with a request for the crane.

“I actually have to do some work," St. Germain says with a laugh.

Contractors work on the top of One Dalton Street, 742 feet above Huntington Ave. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Contractors work on the top of One Dalton Street, 742 feet above Huntington Ave. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The early morning sun illuminates the Citgo Sign and the tops of other buildings around Kenmore Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The early morning sun illuminates the Citgo Sign and the tops of other buildings around Kenmore Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The whole city seems to turn beneath him as St. Germain rotates the crane to pick up a bin of construction debris.

St. Germain says it’s a good time to be a crane operator, possibly the most prosperous time since he started four decades ago.

Garcell Beauduy has been working as St. Germain’s apprentice since the summer of 2017. Beauduy says there’s nothing like the camaraderie among workers on a skyscraper construction site.

“They say the union is like a brotherhood, it really is," he says. "Everyone looks out for each other, everyone is worried about everyone else’s safety, everyone works as a team here. No one is better than the next man.”

Beauduy says when he first climbed up the mast of the crane at One Dalton, he had some misgivings.

But you get used to it, and with a view of the sunrise and sunset that few people get to witness, Beauduy says he sees himself running cranes for the rest of his life.

As the workday gets underway, we start to climb back down the crane — six stories — a trip St. Germain has made thousands of times between One Dalton and a lifetime of other buildings.

And the next morning he’ll be up again — at 3:30 with a cup of coffee — hoping to get ahead of the traffic on his way to the top of Boston.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Brett St. Germain's last name. We regret the error.

This segment aired on January 9, 2019.

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Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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