HAWAII AT WORK
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
It took a lot of hard work for Danette Nakooka to become a tower crane operator. Above, Nakooka works from high above a construction site in Kakaako.
The High Life
Danette "Dee" Nakooka has a great job with a great view, but she takes nothing for granted
Danette "Dee" Nakooka isn't one to sit around and wait for things to happen. The tower crane operator for Nordic PCL Construction -- currently working high above a construction site in Kakaako -- sets goals and pursues them. When opportunity knocks, she's ready. She credits the Operating Engineers Local 3 union and colleagues at work -- in particular a retiree who worked with her at Hawaiian Dredging -- for helping her achieve her goals, especially her attaining the highly prized position of tower crane operator. Along the way, Nakooka also has worked as a bookkeeper, office manager, department store manager, water truck driver, road-paving machine operator, rigger, oiler and radio person. Nakooka, 47, is a single mom with three sons, a daughter, and five grandchildren, plus a newborn foster baby girl. She lives in Salt Lake with her daughter and the baby.
Danette "Dee" Nakooka
Title: Tower crane operator
Job: Operates one of the two tower cranes deployed in the construction of Alexander & Baldwin Inc.'s 350-unit Keola La'i condominium project
How long have you been working as a tower crane operator?
Answer: I'm going into my 17th years -- 16 1/2 years.
Q: And you do bookkeeping on the side for Rachel's Tax Service?
A: She's my mom. Since I started this job, I haven't been able to help in the office, but when my dad and my mom (Rachel and Daniel Nakooka) go on vacations, they ask me to help out. She actually hired an office manager because I couldn't go in all the time. But when they really need me there, I'll go there after my job and do whatever she needs me to do.
Q: How did you learn bookkeeping skills?
A: Working at my mom's office. I was 15 when I started working with my mom off and on. Then, when I was about 19, when she sent me to H&R Block and I went through the class. Then she started her own business and my brother and I helped her out because there was no one else. My brother (Scott Williams) is general manager now of Lex Brodie's, across the street (from her current job site at 680 Queen St.). He's been there a long time.
Q: So how did you get the tower crane job?
A: A friend of mine was an apprentice, and she recommended I put my name on the list, to apply for an apprenticeship program for the Operating Engineers. But I couldn't do that until I saw an ad in the paper, so I finally saw an ad in the paper and I applied.
Q: Why did you have to wait for the newspaper ad?
A: Because it's an equal-opportunity kind of thing, so I had to wait for the newspaper ad. And something like 500 people applied. But eventually I made the cut down to 75 people. They started with a test, then I did two interviews after that. Then I had to wait for another year and a half, but I called them every month. They knew who I was when I finally came in.
Q: Then you started training?
A: Yes. That took, like, three and a half years before I became a journeyman. In 1994, that's when I became a journeyman. I started in 1990, and between that and 1995, I worked for Hawaiian Dredging, then went to E.E. Black, made journeyman, then went to Grace Pacific.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Nakooka says that every day she says a prayer before going up, or when she climbs down, to express thanks for her safe day at work.
Before going into construction, you were a department manager at Sears
. That seems like such a radical change, yeah?
A: I was working seven days a week for 13 hours a day and making minimum wages, it seems. I was a manager and I couldn't get anybody to help me, plus I was training other people for the other stores, so I kind of felt like it was not enough money. I was actually looking for something else. So when this job came up, I went for it. I flew the coop.
Q: Nordic is your current employer, right?
A: Yes. I was working for Hawaiian Dredging on a Hawaii Kai job -- the condos across the fire station on Lunalilo Home Road -- and I was waiting for a tower seat, but it was given to someone else. The other person was a friend of mine, so I wasn't going to get bent out of shape and scream and yell and act like a brat. I just did whatever they had for me to do. But seven months later, Nordic PCL lost their operator in the middle of a job -- they were up to the eighth floor -- and I got a call and they offered me the seat. He said, "I'll give you till tomorrow morning if you don't want to say now," but I didn't wait. I said "Yes" right there. I had been waiting for a seat at Hawaiian Dredging, because they mentored me, but I decided I couldn't wait any longer. I had to think about me.
And I knew this was going to happen. I had been waiting for years. Another mentor had said this was going to happen. I didn't believe him, but he was right.
Q: Who was that mentor?
A: Ramone West. I call him grandpa. He gave me so much information and advice, back in '91-'92. He gave me all this advice and he told me how things were going to be down the road. I didn't believe him, but I continued going in the direction he told me to go. I took a lot of classes that he told me to take. When I took my first college class, I couldn't afford the books, because I had to pay for my babies, and he came out and paid for my books. I tried to pay him back, but he wouldn't take it. I asked him why he helped me, and he said that I had potential, and he saw a lot of women come through that didn't have the drive I have. My drive was inspired by my children, because there was only us.
I didn't like depending on my parents. My parents wouldn't even know a lot of times when I needed help. They'd come over and go, "Hey, you don't even have electricity." Me and my kids would be sitting in the dark. So they would help me.
But Ramone West, he helped me a lot. And then along the way, all my peers and coworkers at Hawaiian Dredging, at E.E. Black Sci, they're all my best friends. I meet with them at least once a week.
Q: Do you always work for the same construction company or are you assigned to certain companies by your union?
A: We're dispatched out by the union, but we do have certain clauses that journeyman can go out and solicit work after so much union time. After we're vested, we can look for our own work, if we want to. But I always take the advice of my union, because for me, without my union, I wouldn't have what I have today.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Danette Nakooka stands on the arm of the crane that she operates, a Liebherr, 420-ECH model. Nakooka said she frequently goes out on the crane's arm to inspect it, to make sure everything is in good working order.
How high up in the air is your operating cab? Do you call it a cab?
A: Yeah, my control tower. I believe I'm 257 feet.
Q: Does it stay at that height the whole time?
A: No, at the end of the job, we're going to be at 485 feet.
Q: So you're not afraid of heights?
A: No. They had me climbing cranes when I first started. The union actually put me around cranes when I first came out, so I'm used to it.
Q: Are you comfortable up there?
A: Yeah. It's fine.
Q: How many people can you get up there?
A: I've had five guys up here. Mostly you can have three guys up here, but there's no space to move around.
Q: How long do you stay up there?
A: A normal day would be eight hours. When they have crucial situations, like when they're behind on scheduling, I could be up there 10 to 14 hours.
Q: What kind of a crane is it?
A: The distributor is Morrow Equipment. The machine is a Liebherr, 420-ECH model.
Q: I'll look that up.
A: Yeah, you can look in Morrow Equipment, and the specs are there. And if you look for Liebherr, there's a real interesting story about how he figured out how to balance out the crane, to make it work the way it does. It's a real interesting machine.
Q: How do you get up into the cab?
A: I climb. Every day. It's like almost 600 feet every day, going up and coming down.
Q: What exactly do you do up there?
A: The first thing is to always watch out. Zero incidents. I don't want to do anything that might hurt anybody. We have a lot of young boys down there, and I have three sons, and when I see them, I look at them like my sons, so I wouldn't want to hurt any of them. So I'm a cautious operator. No matter what I'm doing, I'm always cautious. Even if they're hollering at me, I'm not going to move the way they want me to move.
Second, I'm picking up and placing materials, placing walls, to the deck, pouring concrete ...
Q: How does that work?
A: We hook up a bucket, with up to 700 to 1,000 pounds of concrete. I drop the bucket behind the concrete trucks, they fill it up, I swing it over the target, and there's a chute on it, and then they run the shoot on the pour -- unless it's an open bucket.
I'm 257 feet in the air, and I have 180 feet of working boom, so my radius is 180 feet of working space.
Q: I suppose you have to be very careful about not moving the load at the end of your cable too fast, so it doesn't swing too far past where you really want it to be.
A: Yeah, it takes a lot. Some people say you just sit up there and it's a duck-soup job. I say, you come up and try it.
Q: At the current job, why is your crane the taller of the two cranes at the site?
A: That's a good question. I don't know. But I put together the other crane.
Q: What does that mean?
A: They bring in the pieces and I put it together, with the assistance of the Northwest Tower boomers. That was a long day. They're from Washington.
Q: Is it unusual to have two high-rise cranes working on the same building?
A: On my last job with NordicPCL there were two cranes. He built one side and I built the other.
Q: Do you ever take a moment to enjoy the view up there?
A: Oh yeah, I do all the time. That's the best part of this job. I am very thankful for being able to see my island. And my jobs also put me in a situation where I become a part of history.
Q: In terms of putting up a building?
A: Yeah, because like when we came in, there was just a parking lot. And, like on H-3, we put in a bridge. Before that, there was no bridge. So I saw a lot of history come out of that mountain. Even Kakaako, I was part of a lot taking down buildings and putting new ones up. And you finds things sometimes, too, of historical value.
Q: You keep in touch with your colleagues by radio?
A: Yeah. I have one to the ground, one to the other crane, and then I keep one on the side for emergencies, in case my power goes out.
Q: What do you do when there aren't any construction jobs around?
A: I've never been out of work. Ramone West trained me to plan. He saw a lot of people just wait around for things to happen. He said if you wait around, you won't get what you want. So I'm always planning. When one job is done, I've got another one lined up.