'My office in the sky' | Crane offers unique perspective

Terry Diggs' office has one of the best views in Hampton Roads.

Suspended 155 feet above the wharf at Norfolk International Terminals, Diggs' glass-enclosed domain is a small, one-seat cab attached to one of 14 giant gantry cranes that dot the Norfolk waterfront.

He's one of about 40 longshoremen who operate the marine terminals' largest pieces of equipment — stretching between 208 and 271 feet above the ground — the oversized hands that form the local skyline and load and remove steel cargo boxes from container vessels in Hampton Roads.

From his perch, Diggs has a first-class view of the harbor, and he's gotten a unique perspective on some interesting events.

He has witnessed several search-and-rescue efforts and watched submarines coming and going from the nearby Naval Station Norfolk. Navy helicopters pass at eye level, and majestic thunderstorms develop on the canvas in front of him.

"It's my office in the sky," he says. "It's pretty cool."

Not that he has much of an opportunity to enjoy the view. His job is one that requires considerable skill, precision and concentration.

Much rides on his ability to move boxes quickly.

A long-held industry maxim is that a port is only as efficient as its gantry crane operators.

Diggs, 44, takes that personally.

"I know I've got to tighten up," he says. "I can't be slouching."

In eight years as an operator, Diggs hasn't disappointed, says Bill Miller, Virginia International Terminals' vessel operations manager.

Diggs' performance, Miller says, ranks him among the best of the best. "Terry's one of the new young guns," he says. "He's the real deal up there."

On average, Diggs moves more than 40 boxes an hour, impressive numbers considering the technical skill involved with each container.

With each move, Diggs must use a deft hand to line up four small steel pins on a cable-guided spreader suspended from his cab with holes the circumference of soda cans on containers 155 feet below.

Once the pins fall into place, he can begin maneuvering the containers — each weighing upward of 30 tons — with joystick-like devices he holds in both hands.

So how difficult is it to latch on to a box? "If you get a hold of one within the first week or so, it's pure luck," Diggs jokes. "But now, I don't even have to think about it. It just comes naturally."