Window Washing Is A Terrifying Gig: A Brief History

Window Washing Is A Terrifying Gig: A Brief History
Photo credit: angeloangelo via Compfight cc

Cleaning windows in New York City is a tough, thankless, and, quite frankly, terrifying job. The city saw that last week when window washers Juan Lopez and Juan Lizama found themselves trapped on a dangling scaffold outside the 68th floor of 1 World Trade Center. For more than 90 minutes, the two were suspended hundreds of feet in the air outside the tallest building in North America, to the horror of onlookers below, before they were rescued by members of the FDNY and Port Authority police department.

It was a terrifying sight, but both men were uninjured.

Given the danger inherent to the work of high-rise window washers, instances like this one aren't uncommon. In 2011 alone, eight building cleaning workers were killed on the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Six of them were window washers. But this isn't a new phenomenon, either. Window washing has a history of being a fatal occupation:

  • May 1961: Harlem's Alvarez Simmonds was washing the windows of an apartment building on 419 West 34th Street when his strap broke. He fell 11 floors to the ground and was killed.
  • December 1961: John Dungee, who had been cleaning the windows of Maimonides Hospital in Borough Park, Brooklyn, fell to his death while he worked on a ledge on the fourth floor. Police said he had not properly worn his safety gear.
  • February 1980: Getting from one window to the next was a risky maneuver for Queens' Frank Makosiej, 42. He was 15 floors above 57th Street and Park Avenue when his safety strap failed, sending him to the ground. Miraculously, he survived and only injured his left ankle.
  • August 1996: Scaffolding at the Herald Square Building on 36th Street and Broadway collapsed, killing one worker and injuring another. From the New York Times:

    Pedro Ricardo Oblitas, 37, of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, who was cleaning decorative window mullions, died after stones and bricks struck him in the head and upper body. A co-worker, Augusto Malaspina, 25, was seriously injured by the debris. And Francia Lopez, 44, a garment center saleswoman from the Bronx, managed to push her 9-year-old daughter, Luissanna, out of the way before the falling bricks hit her back and leg.

    The company that hired the workers, Supreme Building Maintenance, would later be sued for the faulty scaffolding.

  • July 1998: Just two years later, another malfunctioning scaffolding owned by Supreme Building Maintenance was the cause of a deadly accident -- this time next to Lincoln Center. Francisco Vega, 40, was killed after two tons of scaffolding collapsed and pulled him down with it. A father of two, Vega had moved to the Bronx from Puerto Rico when he was young. He fell face-first onto the 65th Street sidewalk, where he had been washing windows only seven floors above.
  • November 2003: Brooklyn's Alexander Hemsley was wetting down the window of a Chelsea loft and reaching for a squeegee when his safety belt snapped. Hemsley, 48, fell 12 floors and was killed.
  • May 2005: Joel Gillum, a self-employed window washer, was still working at 68 years old when his harness snapped while he was working on the ninth floor of 430 East 57th Street. Gillum was rushed to Columbia-Presbyterian hospital, where he died hours later.
  • August 2007: Cousins Robert Fabrizio, 35, and Darin Fabrizio, 37, were working across the street from ground zero at the World Financial Center when their cherry picker, or the boom lift that brought them up to the windows they were washing, tipped over and threw them into the air. They both fell about 40 feet to their deaths.
  • December 2007: Just a month before Christmas, brothers Alcides and Edgar Moreno fell 47 stories from Solow Tower at 265 East 66th Street while they were washing windows. The fall killed Edgar. Alcides, miraculously, survived after multiple operations, 24 units of blood, 19 units of plasma, and a year of rehab.

    From the New York Times:

    After the accident, another family member who is also a window washer, Jose Cumbicos, said they had mentioned their misgivings in a telephone call that morning. Mr. Cumbicos also said that the Morenos' supervisor had reassured them, saying a mechanical problem with their rig had been taken care of.

    Even with worker's compensation, the surviving Moreno's hospital bill was expected to run into the millions. He settled a multimillion-dollar suit with the company that makes the scaffolding that broke in the accident. He and his family now live in Arizona.

  • November 2008: When the safety hooks failed on Robert Domaszowec's harness, he fell to his death from the 12th floor at 40 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village. Domaszowec, then 49, had grown up in Williamsburg before moving upstate with his family. The day before he died, he drove his daughter to Ithaca College, according to the Daily News.
  • November 2010: Two window washers on Long Island narrowly survived electrocution after a pole they were using was pushed by a gust of wind into nearby electric cables. Alan Weinberg and Nicholas Genovese of Staten Island were both rushed to Nassau University Medical Center. They had third-degree burns from the 33,000 volts of electricity that had coursed through their bodies.

    From the Daily News:

    "I thought he was dead," said Genovese's wife, Joann, who got a call from Nassau County police soon after the pair were hit with the 33,000-volt shock.

    "I screamed and woke up my kids," the 51-year-old said.

    Genovese was taken to Nassau University Medical Center and treated for third-degree burns on his hands and feet.

    "I'm just thankful he's alive, and he's fine," said his wife, the mother of his two teenage daughters.


Why do people still do this dangerous work? 

"It's a wonderful business," Juan Lopez told CBS New York. "I would recommend it to anyone, as crazy as it sounds."

Lopez, who along with Lizama is part of the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, says the reason he's still alive is because of his rigorous union safety program -- union window washers are required to complete 800 hours of training. And the numbers back him up. According to a union rep, more than 70 non-union window washers died on the job between 2008 and 1983; three unionized window washers died in that same time frame.

About 600 window washers are unionized in New York City. They receive full benefits and are paid as much as nearly $27 an hour.

As for the window washers involved in last week's ordeal? Lizama said if he were asked to return to 1 World Trade Center, he would -- "tomorrow." Lopez? Not so much. "There are a lot of ground-floor jobs" with the company, he said, "and I will probably do that."

See also: World Trade Center Window Washer Says the Emergency Brake Failed

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