Sky-High Oakland Crane Operator Moves Your Stuff

'If you're afraid of heights, forget it.'

By Mike Anderson
|  Thursday, Oct 13, 2011  |  Updated 8:30 AM PDT
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Sitting in a rattling cage 110 feet up in the air is all part of the job description of a container crane operator at the Port of Oakland.

Mike Anderson

Sitting in a rattling cage 110 feet up in the air is all part of the job description of a container crane operator at the Port of Oakland.

Sitting in a rattling cage -- 110 feet in the air -- is Bill Galea's job description.

He's a container crane operator at the Port of Oakland, the fifth busiest container port in the country. Cars, clothes, electronics, food -- if you bought it in the Bay Area, it probably came through Oakland. And Galea moves those containers on and off cargo ships so truckers can drive them to their destinations.

"I don't really think much about what's in the containers," he said. "I just pick 'em up and put 'em down."

Driving over the Bay Bridge, the cranes look like giant, white, metal monsters standing along the waterfront. There's even a local legend that George Lucas used the cranes as inspiration for a creature in "Star Wars." The AT-AT Imperial Walker first appeared in "The Empire Strikes Back," stomping through the snow and firing lasers.

Lucas denied the rumor, "but we still believe it," Galea said.

Galea works up in a small cab that slides along the arm of a crane at a facility owned by APL, a major shipping company.

Inside the cab, he carefully pulls on two joysticks to control the cables hanging underneath him, just like an arcade game. The floor is made of clear glass, so he can see straight down between his legs to pick up the containers. People on the ground look like ants from so high up.

Controlling swing in the cable is the main challenge of operating a crane. Because of this, Galea's cab makes small, jerky movements that would nauseate some people.

"You're constantly trying to catch that swing," he said. "If you don't, that's when it's very very unsafe ... to have the 30-ton box swinging overhead."

Safety is always a priority, but after 13 years on the job, Galea has seen some dangerous stuff.

"I hate to say it, but s**t happens," he said. "But no deaths or anything like that."

When a ship comes in, Galea and his partner move up to 240 containers a day between the ship and shore. Using one crane, they trade off in two or three hour shifts.

Galea likes his job, but hunching over a crane for so long has taken its toll on his back and upper neck.

"I don't know what the shelf life is of a crane operator, but I think I'm getting to the end," said Galea, a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10.

When he first started working down on the waterfront, Galea didn't want anything to do with such a dangerous piece of equipment. But after a while, he took the training and eventually got comfortable up in the crane.

"It's just like driving a car," he said.

Most longshoremen aspire to be a container crane operator one day, but the job is definitely not for everyone.

"If you're afraid of heights, forget it," he said. "You'll never make it out of the elevator."

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