The crane lady | February 22, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - February 22, 2008

The crane lady

Danville woman rides high above 'glass ceiling'

by Geoff Gillette

At a time when most other girls her age were thinking about school dances, slumber parties and boys, 15-year-old Danna Saunders was already finding her life's path. A path that would lead her 40 years later to the cab of a tower crane, hundreds of feet above the San Francisco Bay hauling multi-ton girders to build the Benicia Bridge. One of only two women on the West Coast certified to run the giant machines.

Saunders, 61, a lifelong Danville resident, said she knew at an early age that she enjoyed working with heavy machinery in the construction business.

"When I was a teenager I got a job on a ranch," she said. "I started running equipment when I was 15. I've always been mechanically inclined."

On the ranch she enjoyed working with a variety of equipment, but what she found she enjoyed most about it was working outdoors.

"I've tried lots of different things," said Saunders. "I was a veterinarian's assistant, I worked in offices, I sat in front of computers. All it showed me was that I really wanted to be working outside. If I had to work an inside job, I would have stayed a vet's assistant."

Saunders worked minor jobs in the construction industry until she became a partner in her own construction company.

"That was my first major construction job. We did a lot of different jobs, which helped me to learn more about running the heavy machines."

"I learned a lot of proficiency on my own equipment," she added, with a smile.

During the course of the company's existence, Saunders ran loaders, bulldozers and other heavy machinery. But eventually the partnership and the company came to an end.

"When the company dissolved, I got a job running a loader," she remembered. "I did that for a long time. The problem is, running those big machines isn't just sitting in a cab and driving. It's physically challenging, and I decided that it was time to try something else. Something a little easier on my body."

Shattering the glass ceiling

It was this thought process that led Saunders to go for cranes.

"It is easier physically, yes, and you get to work year round with cranes," she explained. "And at the time, I had two daughters at home so I needed to be working steadily through the year."

She admits that initially her push to get into cranes had more to do with the second reason.

"I started doing this for the wrong reasons - money. But it became about making it over a big hurdle," she said. "Being a woman, I had to prove myself over and over. That became my incentive, not just to break through the glass ceiling, but to shatter it."

Tower cranes are the huge t-shaped structures generally seen at construction sites. The cranes can be 80 feet to 500 feet tall and can lift upwards of 88,000 pounds.

In order to get to the cab, operators must climb up a ladder the whole way. For safety reasons there are platforms spaced incrementally so the crew members can stop and catch their breath on the way up.

Cranes are used a great deal for bridge building and several were employed in the construction of the Benicia Bridge as well as the recent rebuilding work done on the I-580/I-880 overpass after a truck fire last year.

Saunders said that working in the cranes requires good depth perception, hand-to-eye coordination, strength and a good head for heights.

"I wasn't afraid climbing up to the cab that first time, but it did make me nervous when the whole thing swayed while I was climbing up," she recalled.

The design of the machines is such that they will move and sway as the loads are lifted or if the wind is blowing, in order to distribute the weight along the boom. This keeps the structure from buckling or snapping under the stresses generated by the enormous weights they carry.

Spending all day up high

Crane operators generally climb up to the cab early in the morning, and don't come back down until after their shift has ended. Saunders said that fact always generates the same question: "How do you go to the bathroom?"

"There's no bathroom up there," she said, laughing. "You have to bring a container of some sort with you and when it's time to go, you climb down to the platform just below the cab and do it."

She said that with the cab being made mostly of glass - including the floor - she had to leave it to get some privacy. At the end of the shift, the container is brought down and dumped into one of the porta potties on the worksite.

This long solitary trek up into the crane's cab also means the operators have to bring everything they might need up with them, since they won't be going anywhere.

"I brought my lunch, books, magazines," Saunders said. "If there was any downtime, I would read or eat. Some days you might be busy the whole day, others you might be waiting hours for the next load to move."

Job entails years of training

Years of working with loaders and other machines may have qualified Saunders to try for cranes, but the job wasn't just handed to her.

"There is a lot of schooling. Even though I was a Journeyman by union standards, when I went over to cranes in 1990, I had to start from the bottom," she recalled. "You learn to take care of the crane. I started as an oiler. You keep it fueled up, clean and running smooth. Whatever the operator wanted you to do, you did."

Once through with being an oiler, Saunders worked her way up the different types of cranes.

"While they mostly operate the same, you still have to learn each one," she explained. "Then there's a four-hour written test and a two-hour practical test before you are certified to drive it."

When Saunders went through the process, it was not as formal as it is today.

"Now," she said, "it's a seven-year apprenticeship. There's a school in Sacramento."

Saunders said the reason for such stringent standards and practices is that the crane operator is responsible for more than getting cargo where it needs to be.

"You have people's lives in your hands," she said. "I've got a 20,000-pound load going over 20 guys waiting to get it in place. If something goes wrong it can be really dangerous."

"I've seen some bad wrecks in my time, but fortunately was never in one," she added. "I was very fortunate, and very careful."

Even after becoming certified, the schooling did not end for Saunders. She was required to take continuing education classes each year, and the company she worked for, Kiewit Pacific, also held seminars and classes for its operators.

Animosity of 'the guys'

Schooling may have been one hurdle, but her co-workers were another. Even though she knew there weren't many women in the field, and despite having worked years in construction, a field traditionally dominated by men, Saunders was unprepared for the level of animosity her efforts to get into cranes would generate in some of the crews.

"I would come onto a jobsite and the guys would see me and ask me what I was doing there," she said. "They weren't happy to see me climbing up into the cab of the crane. That was the reaction I got most of my career. I threatened some of them, the ones who were insecure to begin with. They just didn't want to see a woman doing what they thought was a man's job."

"It was different if they knew me," she added. "The guys that I worked with before knew I'd take good care of them and they were happy to see me back."

At other sites, harassment forced her off the job.

"I've had several incidents happen in my life," she recalled. "On one job at the San Francisco Airport, I was harassed and sabotaged off the job. I was running a drill rig and one of the guys cut a hydraulic line part way through and when it burst it made a big mess. Since it was my responsibility to make sure the equipment was properly maintained and running, I was the one who got into trouble over it."

On another job, Saunders suffered serious harassment and verbal abuse from a fellow operator.

"He called me things that I can't repeat here, and my friends said I should file a grievance. I did, and nothing came of it. Even my friends didn't back me up," she recalled.

Despite that treatment, Saunders went back day after day.

"I never let them see me in tears, but I definitely cried, a bunch of times."

Saunders said as the years went by, the incidents of harassment became fewer but never went away.

"The guys got used to me. They knew if I was up in the cab that they were in good shape," she said.

Retiring at the top

Saunders' crowning achievement came in 2001 when she was brought in for the construction of the new Benicia Bridge.

"Everyone calls it 'my bridge' because I was the main operator during the construction. First to last, I was there," she said. "When it was finished in 2006, that's when I decided to retire. My daughters told me it was best to retire at the top of my game."

The 61-year-old Saunders has come a long way from the 15-year-old driving trucks and tractors on a ranch in Danville. But she said her retirement has been every bit as busy as her career.

"I get to spend a lot more time with my daughters. I volunteer at the Railroad Museum and the San Ramon Valley Historical Society. I'm just doing things I never got time to because I was working, like riding my horse, bowling," she said. "I ride my bike almost every day."

That doesn't mean she doesn't feel the sway of the crane and the excitement of the building process every time she drives over the Benicia Bridge or the Cypress Expressway, where she also worked.

"I'm tempted to go back. I really am. The feeling of accomplishment you get when you look at something you built is incredible," she said.

With a smile, she added, "My days are so busy now, I don't know when I'd have time to do it."