The crane was split into pieces as it fell, pulverizing a four-story townhouse and doing heavy damage to parts of five other buildings. A man was pulled from the townhouse nearly four hours after the building was crushed.
It's believed the four people killed in the disaster were all workers at the construction site. More than 10 people were hurt, in one of the city's worst construction accidents in recent memory.
Cars nearby were overturned and crushed. A huge dust cloud rose over the neighborhood. Rubble was piled several stories high.
"It makes me want to cry," said resident Diana Lynn.
"That happened and here's my thought," said eyewitness, Sean Watts. "Oh my god, it's coming to me in the next second and a half I'm gone."
The massive crane collapsed around 2:20 p.m. Saturday afternoon, smashing into a high-rise building on 51st Street and Second Avenue.
It then continued falling striking on top of another smaller brownstone, with a bar on the first floor.
It went through that building like a wrecking ball, reducing it to rubble.
The company that manages the crane says a piece of steel fell off and sliced the tie that was holding the crane to the building it was constructing.
Not quite half of the 43-story condominium is built. Workers were starting on a fresh story Saturday, said an owner of the company that manages the construction site.
It appears that a piece of steel fell and sheared off one of the ties holding the crane to the building, causing it to detach and topple, said Stephen Kaplan, an owner of the Reliance Construction Group.
"It was an absolute freak accident," Kaplan said. "All the piece of steel had to do was fall slightly left or right, and nothing would have happened."
Kaplan said the company had subcontracted the work to different companies and was not in charge of the crane. Phone messages and an e-mail left for the crane's owner, New York Crane & Equipment Corp., were not immediately returned.
"Once that fell down, the entire thing just went backwards," said construction worker, Gregory Jones. "You could literally see people hanging on and it was wow, wow."
Four construction workers were killed Saturday. They were crews either on the crane or directly in the construction zone.
They are Brad Cohen, Aaron Stephens, Anthony Mazza and Wayne Bleidner.
Mayor Bloomberg quickly arrived to the scene and offered his condolences to those affected by this disaster.
"This construction accident is one of the worst the city has had," said Mayor Bloomberg. "And our hearts go out to all the victims and their families."
Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said the rescue was "a painstaking hand operation, as we try to remove the rubble so we don't cause further collapse or injure anyone who may still be in that building." He said the operation would continue all night if necessary, including the use of search dogs and thermal-imaging and listening devices.
Soon to be Governor David Paterson, also arrived on the scene, commended the rescue workers who found one man, and pulled him out of the debris more than three hours after the collapse.
"It's a horrible situation, very gory. There's blood in the street," said Lt. Gov. David Paterson. "But we are very lucky to have brave police and firefighters here."
James Kennelly, the lead partner at East 51st Development Company, which owns the property, issued a written statement expressing the group's dismay over the accident.
"There are no words to describe the level of devastation we feel today as a result of this tragic event," he said, extending prayers to the families of the dead and injured. Rescue crews are still searching for three missing people, two construction workers and a lady who was inside the brownstone.
Still residents acknowledge it will take a long time to get things back to normal.
Neighborhood residents said they had complained to the city several times about the construction at the site, saying crews worked illegal hours and the building was going up too fast. In fact, city officials said they had issued 13 violations to the site in the last 27 months, but described that as a normal amount for a project of that size. Inspectors examined the crane Friday and found nothing wrong with it.
New York Crane was involved in a 2006 mishap, in which a 13-foot piece of a crane mast that was being dismantled fell into the street and crushed a taxi cab.
At a Donald Trump hotel-condominium tower, a worker plummeted 40 stories to his death last month when a concrete form gave way. A month before that, a crane's nylon sling broke away and dropped seven tons of steel onto a construction trailer across from ground zero, injuring an architect.
People who live in and around the collapse zone were evacuated. One of temporary shelters are located outside of High School of Art and Design.
Witnesses say they heard the rumble and described the rushing right into the street after the collapse.
"All of a sudden, I heard two or three loud explosions and then lobby of my building blew up," said evacuee, Pamela Mohr.
Pamela Mohr was in her apartment building next to the construction site taking a shower when the giant crane collapsed.
She along with many other residents in neighboring buildings gathered up their loved ones and ran away from the huge cloud of smoky debris.
"All the debris from that corner kind a fell down on our roof," said evacuee Stefan Pokorny. "And if we're like five feet to the left...and we all would have been pancakes."
Neighbors say the force of the crane hitting the building rumbled and shook the entire neighborhood.
"The whole place started trembling and I was like, what's going on? I ran into the window and I saw from the window that the whole crane was coming down into our garden," said Stefan Pokorny. "At that moment, I thought that's it, I'm dying."
The Red Cross set up a reception area for displaced residents at the Art and Design High School on East 57th Street where many evacuees sought out more information on the safety of their buildings.
"I don't know how much damage was sustains our building, they are supposedly checking all the buildings out in the area," said evacuee Andrew Cenpa.
Before residents can return home, inspectors have to determine that the buildings are structurally sound. In the meantime, temporary shelters will remain open.
Full statement from the property owner
Just hours after the collapse, the property owner released a statement.
"There are no words to describe the level of devastation we feel today as a result of this tragic event. Our heart and prayers are with the families of those who died in this horrible accident. We are also praying for a full recovery for the individuals who have been injured today. Our first priority is to support the police and fire rescue operation to ensure that all victims are accounted for and the site is rendered safe as quickly as possible.
We hired Reliance Construction Group (RCG) as our Construction Manager because not only do they have a strong reputation as quality builders, but also for their outstanding safety record. In addition, RCG has hired subcontractors of similar record and reputation. New York Crane, to the best of our knowledge, has earned a reputation as the pre-eminent crane company in the region.
We expect RCG and New York Crane to cooperate fully with any and all investigations into this tragic accident. We must find out why and how this happened as soon as possible."