April 6, 1958: Dave Kelly had been working as a reporter at the Pittsburgh Press for only a few months when he got the assignment.
At the time, Pittsburgh was in the midst of a renaissance. Change was everywhere. Acres of the Lower Hill District had been razed to make way for the Civic Arena. Pieces of the Fort Pitt Bridge were being put into place. Three new stainless steel buildings dominated the Point. And just a few blocks from the newspaper building, workers were busy digging the foundation for a Hilton Hotel. A massive, 333-foot crane had been brought in to assist with the construction.
Newspapers called the crane the world’s largest. It had been delivered in March of 1958, its sections arriving in eight Pennsylvania Railroad cars. Once assembled, the crane’s enormous weight was supported by special tracks laid down around the hotel site.
One sunny day in early April, Kelly was approached by his boss.
“You know that crane at the Hilton Hotel site?” the boss asked. “Well, you go over there and climb it.”
Kelly didn’t warm to the idea. In fact, he wrote that he’d “rather play Russian roulette with a submachine gun” than climb a crane. He expressed his reservations to his boss, but got no sympathy.
“Git,” said the boss. “And take a photographer with you.”
The photographer in this case was Eddie Frank, who faced the awkward and harrowing task of climbing a narrow structure with cameras strung around his neck.
The two walked to the Hilton and signed papers saying that if they fell to their deaths it was nobody’s fault but their own. Then, up they went.
The crane’s steel ladder shot straight into the sky. Once Kelly and Frank reached the first platform, Kelly asked, “Is this thing swaying?”
“No,” said Frank, “but your knees are, and it’s spoiling my focus.”
Pictures of Kelly climbing show him at first wearing a jacket, white shirt and tie. As he neared the top, however, he apparently ditched his jacket, loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves.
At 145 feet, Kelly and Frank reached the crane’s control shack, which Kelly described as a “panel with four little steering wheels and a pedal of the floor.”
Kelly stepped on a pedal and grabbed one of the wheels. “The thing moved a little and wheezed. Then it stopped.”
“I hope I didn’t break it,” he said to Frank.
At this point, Kelly later wrote, a Capital Airlines Viscount flew by. A lady sitting near a window in the cabin smiled and waved at him. You never know when to take Kelly seriously.
Poor Frank. He needed pictures. So, cameras dangling, he leaned out from the ladder, wrapped one knee around a girder and prepared to take a shot. “Stop squinting,” he told Kelly.
“It’s the sun,” Kelly responded. “It’s in my eyes.”
After a while Kelly had enough — he reported that the “shakes overtook me.” The two headed down.
Halfway to the ground, a gust of wind lifted Kelly’s hard hat from his head. It fell, hit a cement truck and nearly clobbered a construction foreman.
The last picture made that day shows Kelly kissing the ground.
Kelly toiled at the Press for only a few years, then became a news broadcaster. He worked for both KDKA and WPXI.
“He was a pioneer of newspaper men who went into broadcasting,” says Bill Moushey, himself a former reporter at WPXI and the Post-Gazette. Moushey worked with Kelly at WPXI from 1979 to 1984.
Moushey remembers Kelly as a master of the Irish brogue and a supreme jokester and storyteller. He came, Moushey recalls, from a family of funeral directors.