Hearst Tower

A file photo of the Hearst Tower in midtown Manhattan, where two window washers were trapped Wednesday. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty Images / August 24, 2007)

Two window washers were rescued 46 floors above street level Wednesday afternoon after their scaffolding collapsed outside a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan.

Before firefighters removed part of a window and pulled the workers inside, the two workers were calmly awaiting rescue from opposite sides of a scaffold that appeared to have buckled in the center. Two rescuers at Hearst Tower, on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, laid atop the lip of the roof staring down at them.

One worker chatted on his cellphone as rescuers milled about on the roof of the avant-garde skyscraper. Traffic was blocked off below, creating a snarl as office workers in nearby buildings gazed at the perilously slung scaffolding.

Before the rescue, New York city Fire Department Deputy Assistant Chief Bill Seelig told WABC-TV that rescuers were planning to remove glass from inside the building to rescue the two workers, who did not seem to be hurt and were also tethered to the top of the building.

“This is something that they do on a pretty regular basis," Seelig said of the rescue, adding, “If we don’t need to put somebody over the building with a rope, we don’t do that. That’s the more hazardous approach.”

The Hearst Tower is no ordinary building, with a zigzag grid that presented window-washing challenges so quixotic that the building's window-washers received a lengthy magazine profile in the New Yorker in February.

According to the New Yorker, Toronto-based scaffolding firm Tractel-Swingstage was approached to design a unique scaffold to safely navigate the massive "birds' mouths" that divot the building's corners. The following passage gives a sample of the complexity of the scaffold likely collapsed along the edge of the building:

“Designing and building the machine took a team of Tractel engineers three years. The result, a rectangular steel box the size of a Smart car, supporting a forty-foot mast and hydraulic boom arm attached by six strands of wire rope to a telescopic cleaning basket, houses a computer that monitors sixty-seven electromechanical safety sensors and switches, and runs around the roof of the Hearst Tower on four hundred and twenty feet of elevated steel track. When it was finally installed, in April, 2005, at a cost of some three million dollars, it was described by Scott Borland, the project’s construction manager, as being ‘like a ride at Disneyland.’ ”

One worker noted that safety checks took about an hour every morning before cleaning can actually begin.

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