The window cleaner who fell from a skyscraper and lived
- 9 March 2017
- From the section Magazine
Only half of the people who fall three storeys survive. From 10 storeys almost no-one does. This is the tale of a window cleaner who survived a 47-floor fall from the roof of a New York skyscraper.
"I loved to see the windows really clean," Alcides Moreno says.
"I liked the water and the soap, how you press the squeegee.
"We would start at the top and clean all the way to the bottom, I loved it."
Moreno and his younger brother Edgar set out to clean the windows of the 47-floor luxury Solow Tower building in Manhattan's Upper East side on the morning of 7 December 2007.
They took the lift up to the top and walked out on to the roof, the temperature hovering around freezing.
But moments later, disaster struck. When they climbed on to the 16ft-wide (4.9m) washing platform the cables holding it in place "slipped from their attachment point", according to the United States Department of Labor accident report.
"On the left side the cable came off first. That was my brother's part. My brother fell off, all the way down," Alcides Moreno says.
Edgar plummeted 472ft (144m), landing in a narrow alley. By the time he reached the ground it's estimated he would have been travelling at more than 120mph. Alcides Moreno's side of the scaffold broke loose soon after, and he too started accelerating towards the ground.
At street level, firefighters and paramedics found a harrowing scene. Edgar Moreno had landed on a wooden fence, his body was severed and he couldn't be helped.
Alcides Moreno was found crouching among a pile of twisted metal, clutching the scaffold controls. Still breathing, he is said to have tried, unsuccessfully, to stand up.
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Firefighters recall how they began to move him in small increments "like a fragile egg", knowing that one wrong move could have killed him.
The men's safety harnesses and lifelines, together with some soap and a bucket of hot water - the steam still rising from it - were discovered on the roof next to the scaffold rig.
Alcides Moreno was rushed to a nearby hospital and induced into a coma. He had sustained injuries to his brain, spinal column, chest and abdomen, and had fractures to his ribs, right arm and both legs. He underwent numerous operations, including having a catheter inserted in his brain to reduce swelling. He received 24 pints of blood.
"If you're looking for a medical miracle, this certainly qualifies," Dr Herbert Pardes, the then president and CEO of New York-Presbyterian Hospital told a press conference at the time.
"The survival rate even from a four-storey fall is not very good," Dr Glenn Asaeda from the New York City Fire Department said. "A higher hand was in control here."
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Alcides Moreno woke up nearly three weeks later, on Christmas Day 2007, with his wife, Rosario, at his bedside.
"My mind was so blurry," he says.
He has no recollection of the fall itself. Did he know what had happened to his brother?
"I understood that he must be dead because I looked around and saw only me and my wife," he says.
An investigation into the accident found that the scaffolding hadn't been properly maintained and that new motorised cables, which attached the window washing platform to the building, had not been properly anchored to the roof.
Accident investigators also concluded that although Alcides Moreno had stepped on to the scaffold without wearing a safety harness, this did not prove that he had refused to use it. Since he had also not yet retrieved his window washing equipment from the roof they said that he might still have intended to go back and put on the harness before starting work.
Speculation continues as to how he survived. By holding tight as he fell, did the scaffolding take most of the impact? Did the scaffolding somehow surf the air? Did Alcides Moreno bounce off the side of the building on the way down, slowing his fall?
The two brothers, originally from Ecuador, had arrived in the US in the 1990s looking for work.
"Losing him was a big deal for me," Alcides Moreno explains.
"Edgar lived with me in New Jersey, and we shared a lot of things. He worked with me and died working with me.
"I believe I felt melancholic for about three years. That's how long it took me to recover and accept his death. It was like losing a child, because he was younger than me."
Alcides Moreno received a substantial compensation payout and he and his family moved to Phoenix, Arizona. He says the warm weather there is good for his bones.
"I have all the scars on my body and because of the back injuries, I can't run, only walk," he says. "I'm not like I used to be. But thank God I can walk, that is amazing for me."
Now 46, Moreno says he would clean windows again if he could - he doesn't have a problem with heights. But he doesn't work for health reasons. He estimates that he is 80% of the person he used to be.
"When I ask something, I don't finish the question," he says. "There are things I don't do well. It must be a consequence [of the accident]."
The experience on 7 December 2007 changed his life in other ways too.
"I used to think a lot about me and only me," Moreno says. "I would provide for the family and think that was good enough. Then I realised how important my wife and kids are."
Last year, Alcides Moreno became a father for the fourth time. He seems overjoyed when talking about his boy of eight months.
"I keep asking myself why I lived. I have a new baby - he must be the reason, to raise this kid and tell him my history."