View from the top

By By Ana Breton

By Ana Breton

It’s 4:45 p.m., and winds are blowing southwest at an average speed of six miles per hour.

Jeff Balis is working in a steel box on top of the yellow crane responsible for remodeling the Marriott Library.

He sits in a 5-foot-by-5-foot space with just enough room to get around the chair from which he controls the entire machine.

Like a car, he manages the crane with different switches. While one controls the jib, which lifts up to 44,000 pounds of material, another button enables the arm to pull a 360-degree turn.

Sitting on the control chair, Balis is surrounded by nothing but a steel frame and windows. It’s easy to feel like you are standing in a telephone booth on top of an 80-foot toothpick, ready to tip over at any moment.

But Balis is calm. At 54, he is not new to heights. He began working for his father’s construction company when he was 15 years old, and at 24 he operated the company’s main crane.

In the last two years, Balis has worked for Oakland, the company reconstructing the library, and he has spent the last six months hovering above the ground.

As the operator, he controls the crane, picking up concrete, metal or whatever else the workers below are building that day.

Sometimes, he said, work can be a little bit slow.

So while Balis waits for the workers to finish, he listens to oldies on his vintage radio, sitting nine floors above campus.

He checks up on his wife from the phone in the crane booth.

“It’s hard to be alone sometimes,” said Balis, who spends more than 10 hours a day on top of the crane.

Sometimes he even pulls out literature to pass the time. He is currently reading A Scottish Hawaiian Story, a book about a family who sailed to Hawaii in the 1800s.

Balis has reason to be interested in Hawaii. After all, he spent six years there working with another crane.

Balis’ work has also taken him to California, Mexico, Africa and a mineshaft in Colorado.

“I love traveling. That’s the reason I do it so much,” he said.

He was even in a crane when a tornado hit downtown Salt Lake City in 1999.

Trying to flee the harsh winds of the tornado that was only a block away, Balis climbed down the crane ladder as the tornado passed.

“It was unbelievable,” he said.

Luckily, the crane didn’t tip over.

“This has always been dangerous work,” Balis said. “But it comes with the job.”

Garland Brinkerhoff, Oakland project manager, said there have only been minor injuries during the library construction.

Construction workers, he said, take a plethora of precautions to make sure they are in a safe environment.

“Crane operators are communicating with workers below at all times,” Brinkerhoff said. “We have to be very cautious not to swing materials too far, so the degree of danger is minute.”

Balis himself inspects the crane every day at 6:30 a.m. Crane technicians also inspect the machine to make sure it has met all safety measures.

Despite the risk, Balis seems to have passed his sense of adventure on to future generations.

When his three children were younger, he would take them on rides in the crane.

“They all enjoy it,” he said. “None of them are afraid of heights. But I guess, if they were, they would be afraid to admit it.”

Not surprisingly, some have gone into the construction business.

The library-remodeling project is scheduled for completion in the summer of 2008.

Balis’ next conquest: watching Fourth of July fireworks from the top.

“I’ve never done it,” he said “but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Josh Lee

Jeff Balis operates the yellow crane working construction at the Marriott Library on Sept. 13. The 80-foot tall crane is capable of lifting 44,000 pounds.

Josh Lee

Jeff Balis, who started construction work for his father’s company at age 15, now spends more than 10 hours daily atop the crane for construction on the Marriott Library.