A mobile crane working on a church steeple toppled near Rittenhouse Square this afternoon, killing the crane operator and injuring a woman standing nearby.

The orange aerial lift, working at the First Presbyterian Church at 21st and Walnut Streets, fell at about 1:15 p.m., knocking down a streetlight, shearing off a stoplight and clipping the roof of a building on the north side of the street.

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Eyewitnesses said the crane operator was turning the machine when one wheel rolled over a cable access cover, the heavy lid gave way, the machine wobbled then fell.

The operator was taken to Hahnemann University Hospital, and was pronounced dead at 1:42 p.m., police said.

At 6 p.m., the crane still lay like a felled steel redwood across the intersection and half way down 21st street.

The aerial work platform was positioned on the southeast corner so that workers could check the north face of the 137-year-old First Presbyterian Church.

"We heard the sound. I had no idea what happened but I knew I shouldn't be hearing it," said the church's pastor, Rev. Jesse Garner.

Garner said the church had hired Masonry Preservation Group, of Merchantville, N.J. to perform the "routine survey" of the church's stone exterior.

MPG, which does extensive work in Philadelphia on the maintenance and restoration of historic stone and masonry structures, had brought several of the truck-mounted cranes and set them up around the church, Garner said.

"We have no idea what happened, but right now we're more concerned with the well-being of the people who were injured," Garner said. "They are in our prayers."

Two Comcast technicians, Federico Thillet and William Walker, were two buildings away from the church corner moments before the accident.

Walker, who has worked on cranes before, had completed a cable installation and was standing beside his parked truck when he looked up to watch the operator at work on the ornate russet stone steeple. Just above a winged gargoyle at the level of several small arched windows, Walker could see the operator in the orange mesh nest. "He was about 125 feet up at the top of the fully-extended crane," Walker said.

As the operator turned the crane, one of the four enormous wheels at the base rolled over a cable access panel, Walker said.

"The crane started to tilt and it swayed out about 20 feet into the street. Then it swayed back towards the church," Walker said. "The second time it swung out, it toppled over."

The crane seemed to fall in slow motion, said his coworker, Thillet, who immediately called 911.

Walker sprinted around the corner and saw that the crane had crashed into a Verizon truck parked on the east side of the street. He climbed up and found the operator strapped into the cage by a harness, and dangling over the edge of the truck.

"Sir, are you OK?" Walker asked. "Can you tell me your name?"

There was no response.

As the crane fell, the hydraulic arm bit into the roof and eave of the building at 2015 Walnut. The bricks and debris rained down on a passerby, pinning her to the ground.

Walker, realizing he could do nothing for the crane operator, ran to her to offer help. She told him she thought she had broken her arm, he said.

"Stay still," he told her. "Help is on the way."

Walker said he had worked on cranes before and knew what it felt like to be up there.

"Any small movement at the bottom sways a lot at the top," Walker said. "Obviously they didn't see the manhole cover. The vault is pretty sturdy but can't handle that kind of weight."

About a dozen witnesses, including a teenager watching television in his 12th floor bedroom, witnessed the accident in horror.

Bruce Hornung, 44, was loading groceries into a car parked on the northeast corner of 21st and Walnut streets as the crane toppled. Two of his friends were inside the vehicle.

"I heard a popping sound," Hornung said. "As I'm watching, [the crane] starts coming down. The lightpole comes down, and it falls onto the building. . .. Five more feet, and that it would have fallen on top of the car."

Derek Cain, 41, was trimming yellow roses at the Nature's Gallery florist at 2051 Walnut St. when he heard a crash.

"I thought it was like an earthquake," Cain said. "I went to open the door. There was a lot of dirt and dust." When he walked outside, he said he saw a woman at a bus stop trying to run for safety.

"It was a helluva sight," Cain said, visibly shaken.

Jessica Abramson, a customer service representative of Hollywood Tans at 21st and Walnut, was talking to two customers when she saw the crane fall.

First she heard a sound which she thought was the sidewalk collapsing, looked outside and saw the crane crash. Abramson grabbed the phone and called police.

She said there was a lot of commotion and people running away. But when they realized that two people were in a car in front of the apartment building, some ran back to see if they were hurt. Abramson said the people in the car appeared to be just shaken.

"After the initial ambulance showed up, the police came and then the fire department," she said. "We had a lot of firemen and policemen here."

Authorities confirmed that the weight of the machine broke the cover of the Comcast cable "vault," causing the weight to shift.

Mayor Nutter, speaking to reporters at the scene, called the incident "an unfortunate situation that is quite unusual."

"These covers are all over the city but we don't normally have a lift on a sidewalk," Nutter said.

The type of equipment involved in the accident, known as an AWP or aerial lift platform, is not technically considered a crane, and is not subject to the strict regulations put in place by Philadelphia last year in response to deadly accidents in New York and Miami.

Frank Bardonaro, president and chief operating officer of Amquip Crane Rental in Philadelphia, advised Councilman James F. Kenney on the bill. Bardonaro said AWP is one of a variety of ancillary equipment which has gone unregulated while government officials focus on the larger tower cranes.

"There is zero regulation and very little recognition of dangerous it really is," Bardonaro said, adding that operator training and inclusion of this kind of equipment is the next step in improving safety standards. "Obviously, that's a concern throughout the industry."

Bardonaro said there are training programs and certification to operate the machines that are required by some companies, though he said it is rare for a municipality to require certification and he was not aware of any law in Philadelphia that does so.

Kenney, who sponsored the crane legislation in December, said he would await the accident report to determine whether any new safety standards should be addressed through legislation.

First Presbyterian Church is one of the city's oldest congregations, organized in 1698, 16 years after the arrival of William Penn.

According to a church history, the building at 21st and Walnut Street was actually built in 1872 by the Second Presbyterian Church, a congregation founded in 1743, which had followed the city's growth and demographic changes westward toward the Schuylkill. Both congregations merged in 1949, adopted the Rittenhouse Square building as their home and First Presbyterian as their name.

The stone building has links to some of Philadelphia's most famous architects and artists.

The church itself was designed by Philadelphia architect Henry Augustus Sims, a leading proponent of the Gothic revival in the late 19th century. The distinctive multi-spired tower was added in 1900 by the firm of the celebrated architect Frank Furness. The capitals, or tops of the columns inside the nave were by Alexander Milne Calder, the sculptor who designed the statue of William Penn atop City Hall as well as the building's many ornamental sculptures.

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

Staff writers Jeff Shields, Vernon Clark and Sam Wood contributed to this report.