Inside WRAL: The day the broadcast tower fell
Posted December 5, 2014
Updated December 7, 2014
The day – Dec. 10, 1989 – is etched in the memory of so many employees at Capitol Broadcasting Co. It was the day the 2,000-foot broadcast tower crashed to the ground.
A devastating ice storm moved through the area on Friday afternoon, Dec. 8. Two days of freezing rain loaded tons of ice onto the tower and the supporting guy wires. The mighty tower, near Garner, withstood that weight and held its place.
But Sunday morning brought sunshine and warmer air. The thaw began to take place on the east and south side of the tower, while the structures on the north and west of the tower remained burdened with ice, placing the tower in a precarious position.
Less than a mile away, a newer transmitting tower operated by WPTF could not withstand the same conditions and crashed to the ground.
The collapse was observed by Gil Decker, CBC corporate property management, who lived in an old farmhouse nearby. Realizing the same thing could happen to WRAL’s tower, he immediately called employee Ray Easterling, who was on duty at the transmitter building at the base of the WRAL tower.
Easterling called his supervisor, Ed Hubbard, who told him to leave the building immediately. Good thing he did. Less than 30 minutes later, WRAL’s tower came down, and a leg of the falling tower crashed through a room that served as an office.
A storage building near the base of the tower was destroyed. The multi-ton antenna landed at the front door of the badly damaged transmitter building, but the transmitters escaped serious damage. The tower lay in a heap of twisted metal on the ground.
Thankfully, there were no fatalities.
Jimmy King, a well-known television engineer in the broadcasting industry and owner of Tower King Company, was in town to do maintenance for the local television stations. He just happened to have a camera with him. King witnessed the fall of WPTF’s tower and turned his attention to WRAL’s tower. A little later, he captured WRAL’s tall tower crashing to the ground.
Two mighty towers had fallen victim to the uneven thawing of tons of ice. Nearby, a third tall tower operated by WTVD survived due to a different type of an antenna mount that allowed it to flex and sway. The antenna was recorded to have whipped 35 feet back and forth like a fishing pole, according to WRAL-TV Chief Engineer Wilbur Brann.
News traveled quickly, and employees headed to the station. Different divisions assessed the damaged and employed creative problem-solving techniques to get the Big 5 and WRAL-FM back on the air and carry out the company’s mandate of serving the public.
WRAL-TV was back on the air in less than four hours.
CBC is a diversified communication company, which means it has different communication tools at its fingertips. WRAL-TV Station Manager Paul Quinn called an old friend, Dick Armfield, general manager of WKFT, explained the dilemma and posed an idea. CBC made arrangements with WKFT-TV to broadcast WRAL-TV programming on Channel 40.
Meanwhile, Capitol Satellite beamed the Channel 5 signal via satellite to cable systems in central and eastern North Carolina. WRAL-TV engineering and the satellite divisions combined hustle and ingenuity to pull off that four-hour turnaround. By the end of the month, WRAL-TV was back on Channel 5, sending its signal from a temporary tower in Middlesex.
It took a bit longer to re-establish WRAL-FM back to the airways.
Tom Long, transmitter engineer for WJZY in Charlotte, beat feet to Raleigh and arrived about midnight Sunday with an FM antenna and all the transmission line he could gather up.
Long, WRAL transmitter engineer Charles Strickland, WRAL-FM Chief Engineer Keith Harrison and tower rigger Gene West hoisted the antenna to about 180 feet with a borrowed crane. Using the station’s mobile news and programming unit, 101.5 was back on the air at about 17 percent of its full 100,000 watts of power at 5:10 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 11. Later, they found a temporary place to broadcast from in Apex.
John Greene, senior vice president and WRAL-TV general manager, termed the day “a broadcaster’s worst nightmare.” But when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Before the end of the week, a planning team had been assembled and put to task for a short-term and long-term solution. A “war room” was established in a conference room near CBC President and CEO Jim Goodmon’s office, complete with charts, graphs, fax machines and multiple phone lines.
The work would carry on for many months until a new tower and transmitter building could be rebuilt by the end of 1990.