By Gene Johnson

The Associated Press

TUKWILA, Wash. — Washington state Thursday fined three companies for their roles in a crane collapse that killed four people in Seattle in April, with officials calling it “totally avoidable,” and Seattle Police confirmed that they have opened a criminal investigation.

The Department of Labor and Industries released the results of its investigation Thursday. It found, as experts suspected, that the crane toppled in a wind gust because the workers who were disassembling it prematurely removed pins securing sections of the crane’s mast, contrary to the manufacturer’s instructions.

The practice appears to have been common in the industry, even though it had led to fatal collapses before, investigators said.

The collapse occurred April 27 in the booming tech neighborhood of South Lake Union, where the crane had been used in the construction of a Google office building. Sections of the crane landed on the building and on traffic below, striking six vehicles. Two ironworkers on the crane were killed as were two people in cars. Four other people were injured.

“The incident that occurred was totally avoidable,” department Director Joel Sacks said at a news conference. “If the companies on site had followed the rules, the crane would not have fallen.”

Det. Patrick Michaud, a spokesman for Seattle Police, said he could offer no details about the criminal case except to say it is being headed by violent crimes detectives. Labor and Industries officials said they cooperated with information requests from police.

Crane collapses have resulted in criminal charges before. New York prosecutors brought manslaughter charges in two separate collapses in 2008, one alleging that a rigger failed to adequately secure the crane, and the other alleging the crane’s owner had irresponsibly hired a cut-rate repair company to work on it before it fell. Both cases ended in acquittals.

Regulators issued the biggest fine, $70,000, to Salem, Oregon-based Morrow Equipment Co., which supplied the crane to general contractor GLY. GLY was fined $25,000, and Northwest Tower Crane Service Inc., which provided the crew, was fined $12,000.

Morrow was most culpable because it was the expert on site and should have known and ensured the manufacturer’s instructions were followed, regulators said, while the other companies were cited for not having a supervisor present, inadequate training or other violations.

Two other companies that were investigated were not responsible, officials said.

The companies have 15 days to appeal. Morrow did not respond to emails seeking comment about the fine. Northwest Tower Crane Service declined to comment.