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680 tonnes of steel gone with the wind

A storm was raging across Birsfelden on the night of 26/27 July 2019. In the Rheinhafen, a crane belonging to Birsterminal AG standing 130 metres tall and weighing 680 tonnes collapsed. Helvetia worked with the managers of the company to develop a quick, creative solution that would keep operational downtime to a minimum.

18 May 2020, text: Isabella Awad, photo: Rinaldo Marty

A broken crane lies on rails.
Last summer, a crane 130 metres long and weighing 680 tonnes crashed to the ground at the Rhine harbour.

As Martin Ticks, Birsterminal AG CEO recalls, 26 July 2019 was just like any other Friday. The storm only picked up later in the evening. At nine that night, he answered a call at home. Neighbours of the Birsterminal had raised the alarm – a crane was lying on the tracks of the dock railway. Martin Ticks could hardly believe what he was hearing. How do 680 tonnes of steel just fall over? The storm had already died down by the time he arrived at the Rheinhafen. He was met by a scene of devastation. The police and fire service were on site to free the tracks as much as possible and to secure the accident site. To everyone’s relief, it soon became clear that no one was injured in the incident.

The crane was scrupulously maintained

On Saturday, things looked even worse in the light of day. The collapsed crane was blocking the second crane system, which meant the site had to be cleared as quickly as possible to avoid paralysing operations completely. The public prosecutor’s office checked the maintenance documents and gave the go ahead for clean-up work the following day. «I have been working at the Rheinhafen for a long time and I’ve seen plenty of storms, but this damage was extraordinary», recalls Martin Ticks.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Helvetia commissioned an external expert opinion which showed that while the storm was strong, it was probably not solely to blame for the damage. Gusts of up to 220 kilometres per hour had been measured in some parts of the region. Images from a measuring station showed that one of these cells – known as «downbursts» – had formed over the Rheinhafen on the evening of 26 July. «It was important that we could confirm that this was a case of force majeure», says Martin Ticks. The strong gusts set the crane in motion – even though its wheels were blocked. This crane collided with the second, an abrupt stop that tipped it over.

Quick, creative solution

The crane system was a steel construction dating from the 1940s. «We had an engineer check it, and he said the metal construction was so solid that it could have stood for another 50 years», says Martin Ticks. «Like-for-like reconstruction would have taken two years, at a cost of between five and six million Swiss francs», says the directorate’s claims expert Rinaldo Marty. Shutting down operations for two years was not an option. And a week later, there was another proposal on the table. Cost: CHF 4 million, operational downtime: one year.

Solution: mobile platform

While Helvetia was carrying out an inspection of the dock with the customer, a new idea suddenly emerged – a platform for mobile handling equipment positioned on a stable concrete base hanging over the Rhine. One month after the storm, Birsterminal had the completed solution in hand. This would cost under CHF 3 million rather than the expected CHF 6 million, and instead of waiting two years, Birsterminal would be able to resume operations in just eight months. The company also recycles construction materials, so they have only been slightly affected by the coronavirus crisis, with just a minor downturn in orders. «We now have a new system at just half the price. And the interruption to the business was less than half as long as we originally thought», says the CEO. «Everything went incredibly fast – thanks to the outstanding cooperation from our insurers», says Martin Ticks, recalling Helvetia’s claims settlement.

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