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Explanation Sought in Crane Worker’s Death : Accident: Gene Hooker, 60, was planning to retire after completing the job on which he was killed. He was described as experienced and safety conscious.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gene Hooker, with 35 years of operating a construction crane under his belt, was about ready to retire, kick back and spend more time with his beloved model railroads.

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“I told him I was going to make him a kept man,” his wife, Rosanne Hooker, said Wednesday. “He said it was about time.”

But Paul Eugene Hooker died Tuesday afternoon when the crane he was operating above the Harbor Freeway toppled to one side, causing him to fall about 30 feet.

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Although the accident remained under investigation Wednesday, it appeared that two of four supporting jacks on the crane were not extended far enough, throwing it off balance, said Caltrans spokesman Rick Holland.

Holland said Hooker, 60, of Long Beach, was working near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard when the accident occurred shortly after 1 p.m. Hooker apparently moved the jack extensions so a construction truck could pass, but it was unclear what happened next, Holland said.

“It’s all under investigation,” he said.

Rosanne Hooker, an accountant for Metropolitan Waste Disposal in Montebello, said she tried to reach her husband on his cellular telephone when she heard about the accident, not yet knowing who was hurt. There was no answer, so she called her husband’s labor union.

“I knew. Don’t ask me how but I knew it was him,” she said, sobbing. “I totally fell apart.”

Gene Hooker grew up in Whittier after his family moved from Iowa when he was about 5 years old, his wife said.

The two had known each other for about 11 years before they started dating. Each was married previously. When both those marriages ended in divorce, Gene Hooker and his future wife shared their personal situations and comforted each other.

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“We started dating because we had so much in common,” she said. “From there our love grew.”

They married on Christmas Eve in 1990.

Hooker’s family and friends said it was difficult to believe that such an accident could happen to someone so experienced and conscientious.

Harry Stiller, a labor union representative who knew Hooker for about 18 years, said Hooker’s longevity and his reputation as a top worker were evidence of his safety record.

“He was a real nice guy and a good operator,” said Stiller, business representative for International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 12. “I really, honestly don’t know what happened.”

Holland said he did not know of any safety violations involving the contractor, Ball, Ball and Brosamer, which is known as 3Bs.

Norman Coleman, the Local 12 representative for Hooker and other union members at the job site, said he was gathering details about what may have caused the tragedy.

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“He was very safety conscious,” Coleman said of Hooker. “He was a very personable gentleman.”

Gene Hooker had a stepdaughter, Denise Castellanos, 32, and a son, Ron Hooker, 26, from his first marriage, and six grandchildren. Rosanne Hooker’s daughter from her first marriage, Kristina Hertzler, 16, lived with her mother and Gene Hooker.

“He was a wonderful man,” Rosanne Hooker said, her voice cracking with emotion as she told of how many well-wishers were telephoning her home. “He was very well liked.”

Rosanne Hooker said her husband was hard-working but easygoing, the kind of guy who liked to sit back with a beer and have a few laughs. He liked to tease her by saying that weddings ruined too many weekends.

“I fixed him and we got married on Monday,” she said. “We didn’t have to ruin his weekend.”

Rosanne Hooker said her husband was looking forward to retiring. He and some of his friends had already started building an extravagant model railroad that would eventually include extensive track as well as scenery such as cities, bridges, ponds and lakes. It was to be set up in a room next to the family garage, she said.

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“He loved model railroading,” she said. “They had all of the woodworking done and they were supposed to start laying track next week.”

Instead, she said, her husband will be buried Monday.

“He said this was going to be his last job. He said he was going to retire,” she said, pausing. “I guess it was his last job.”

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