MIDTOWN — The image of a crippled crane hanging from the top of a Manhattan skyscraper on West 57th Street during Hurricane Sandy brought a wave of emotion to Simcha Levenberg.
Thirty years ago, Simcha’s father, Warren Levenberg, was struck and killed by falling debris on East 54th Street and Madison Avenue when a crane collapsed on the roof of a skyscraper.
Warren Levenberg, an accountant with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, was just 32 years old when he was killed July 21, 1982. He left behind two young children.
Seeing the crane on the Internet last month inspired Simcha Levenberg, 34, to find out more about the father he hardly knew.
His search put him in touch with me.
I was featured in a New York Press Club "Q & A" article last November where I mentioned that one of my strangest moments as a journalist was covering the death of Levenberg. Warren was one of my dearest boyhood friends.
We grew up together, played together and went through elementary, junior high and high school together.
Simcha sent me an email.
“If you could spare some time to discuss my father's childhood with me I'd greatly appreciate it,” he said. “I know it's a strange request.”
I could not have been more eager to make the call. Sitting in candlelight with the power out that night, I called my late friend’s son.
We spoke for an hour. I told him how I used to watch Rangers games on Saturday nights eating pizza at his father’s home, of endless days of baseball, and how his father was tall and good looking. He always seemed more of an adult than the rest of us. And the girls loved him.
I told him I was still in contact with many of his father’s friends, and a nucleus live in Los Angeles who would gladly fill in more blanks.
“I would love that,” he said.
"If someone asked me to tell them anything about my father, I would not be able to fill one full page," he said. "I have just a sense of loss and longing."
His recollections come from old newspaper articles from the Daily News and the New York Post that he keeps in a folder. They include pictures of a collapsed crane and his father — "the old man," he said — with his long hair and a mustache that was so popular then.
Warren Levenberg's death resulted from the first crane collapse in New York City. The catastrophe captured everyone’s fear about construction dangers in the city and prompted calls for extra safety measures.
But for Simcha Levenberg, the accident left a "vacuum" that time has not filled.
“People say if your father died young, that it might be better that way, because you don’t know what you lost,” he said. “But I don’t buy that.”
Simcha Levenberg has five sons. He has been a rabbi, tried his hand at stand-up comedy and is now studying to become a therapist. He has an older sister, Ivy. His mother, Mindy, and father divorced shortly before Warren’s death. Simcha lived with his mother.
Both of his parents had remarried before his father was killed.
So there was very little shared over the years about his father. Nothing substantive enough to create a meaningful portrait.
“Everything fit into 140 character tweets,” Simcha Levenberg said. “It was always, ‘He was funny. He was smart. He worked hard.’ I had no sense of who he was.”
There was one thing he had always wanted to know.
“Can you explain why my father ran into the street that day?” he asked. “My father was with someone else who stayed put, but he suffered only a broken leg.”
It was the type of haunting question I had heard many times from people who inexplicably lost loved ones to violence or an accident.
I told him his father was a fast runner. Perhaps he thought he could outdistance the falling granite and concrete. It sounded plausible. But we knew that the randomness of his father's tragedy was impossible to explain.
However, the answers to his other questions about his father are finally starting to be revealed to him thanks to the image of a hurricane-striken crane dangling high above another Manhattan street.