Love triumphs in crane disaster

Bride-to-be Nesh Pilay is assisted by a firefighter after a crane collapsed near the beauty salon where she was having her hair done in downtown Manhattan. (Gina Cherelus, Reuters)

Bride-to-be Nesh Pilay is assisted by a firefighter after a crane collapsed near the beauty salon where she was having her hair done in downtown Manhattan. (Gina Cherelus, Reuters)

When a crane toppled over just metres away from where she sat in her white wedding dress, all thoughts of her nuptials rushed from Nesh Pillay’s mind – until she met a chaplain with the New York Fire Department who saved her day.

“It occurred to me later that the chaplain is called to a scene to read people their last rites if they die, and this really was a tragedy, but she turned it into a moment of light,” Pillay (25) said.

The South African-born bride-to-be was at a hair salon in Lower Manhattan with her mother and sister, preparing for her wedding, when the crane fell last Friday. She was having her hair washed when her sister and the stylists said they felt a tremor. When they looked out the window, they saw the crane in the street, ripping a crater into the tar.

“At the time it was scary.
If the wind had been blowing a few degrees in a different direction, we could have been crushed. But it’s hard to have those thoughts when someone actually did die, so you just feel lucky more than anything else that it wasn’t you,” Pillay said.

Chaos reigned as people rushed through the streets outside, and soon the area was shut down by officials who told the salon staff and the Pillays to remain inside. The stylists, knowing it was Pillay’s wedding day, led the bride to the back of the salon, trying to keep her away from the tragedy unravelling outside.

Although Pillay and her fiancé, Aaron Vanderhoff (27), had initially planned a large wedding, they opted for an intimate ceremony with immediate family instead.

Pillay was meant to meet Vanderhoff at the Tweed courthouse, about a 30-minute walk away, for photographs before the two were to wed at the city clerk’s office. A gas leak meant that Pillay and the group at the salon had to leave the building, and Pillay seized the moment.

The story goes viral
Ann Kansfield, a chaplain for the fire department, spotted Pillay in her elaborate white dress, trying to get through the snow. Her shoulders were bare on the winter’s day, and the umbrella the hairdressers had given her was falling apart in the harsh weather.

Kansfield hurried over and draped her firefighter’s jacket over the bride-to-be’s shoulders, and escorted her to the Tweed courthouse where Vanderhoff was waiting.

Along the way, Kansfield kept Pillay calm, sharing stories with her and revealing that she would be able to marry the couple.

“I just wanted to be with Aaron; I wasn’t even thinking about the wedding getting cancelled. I was wearing this chaplain’s jacket and I collapsed in his arms and just bawled my eyes out,” Pillay said.

“She just took us to the top of the stairs of the Tweed courthouse, which is not where you’re supposed to get married. Security from the building was yelling at us the whole time and she just took us to the top of the stairs and married us,” Pillay said.

Pillay’s story went viral on the internet for the happiness it brought in a moment of tragedy. The incident still weighs heavily on Pillay’s and Vanderhoff’s minds. Three people were injured when the crane collapsed, and David Wichs (38) died.

The couple are looking at options to honour Wichs’s memory. Pillay now lives in Toronto, Canada, where she has established her own public relations agency, and Vanderhoff is based in New York, with the two commuting regularly between the two cities.

“We’re probably not going to go on honeymoon for a few months,” said Pillay. “But when we do, it’s going to be somewhere very secluded.”

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