A Broadcaster’s Worst Nightmare

Throwback Thursday: CBC History

Sunday, December 10, 1989 is a day etched in the memory of so many employees at Capitol Broadcasting. It was the day the 2000’ “Tall Tower” crashed to the ground.

A devastating ice storm moved through the area Friday afternoon, December 8. Two days of freezing rain loaded tons of ice onto the tower and the supporting guy wires. The mighty tower, located near Garner, withstood that weight and held its place. 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.

Antenna rubble

Damage to the transmitter building after the collapse of the WRAL ‘tall tower’ on December 10, 1989.

Less than a mile away, the newer WPTF transmitting tower 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 farm house located close-by. He immediately called WRAL’s Ray Easterling, who was on-duty at the transmitter building at the base of the WRAL tower. Ray called his supervisor, Ed Hubbard who told him to immediately leave the building. Good thing he did. Less than 30 minutes later, 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 thankfully the transmitters escaped serious damage. The damage had been done. The tower laid in a heap of twisted metal on the ground. Thankfully, there were no fatalities.

The WRAL Tower falls

Jimmy King, well-known television engineer in the broadcasting industry and owner of Tower King Company, was in town ready 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. He 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 uneven thawing of tons of ice. WTVD’s tall tower survived due to a different type of an antenna mount that allowed it to flex and sway, and sway it did! The antenna was recorded to have whipped 35 feet back and forth like a fishing pole, according to WRAL-TV Chief Engineer Wilbur Brann during a recent interview for the CBC History Project.

Now what? Time to do what CBC does so well; get to work. News traveled quickly and employees headed to the station. Different divisions assessed the damaged and employed creative problem solving techniques.  This was not a time to wring our hands, it was a time to get the Big 5 and WRAL-FM back on the air and carry out our mandate; serve the public.

WRAL-TV was back on the air in less than four hours! You read that right. CBC is a diversified communication company and that means different communication tools at our finger tips. WRAL-TV Station Manager Paul Quinn called an old friend, Dick Armfield, GM of WKFT, and 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 fabulous four hour turn-around. By the end of the month, WRAL-TV was back on Channel 5 sending its signal from a temporary tower in Middlesex, North Carolina.

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, with WRAL transmitter engineer Charles Strickland, WRAL-FM Chief Engineer Keith Harrison, and tower rigger Gene West hoisted the antenna to a height of 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% of its full 100,000 watts of power at 5:10 am on Monday, December 11. Later they found a temporary place to broadcast from in Apex.

John Greene, Senior VP and WRAL-TV General Manager, termed the day “a broadcaster’s worst nightmare.” But when the going get’s 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 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.

The quick thinking, hard work by employees across the CBC spectrum truly demonstrated the definition of Capitol Broadcasting as stated in our handbook. Capitol Broadcasting Company’s legacy of hard work, creativity, and a commitment to our audiences, our clients, and our employees has made us a successful broadcasting company and industry leader in the communications field.

Thanks to Corp’s Pam Allen for this capcom story & these photos. Pam Parris Allen is a former WRAL newscast producer/director who now works as a researcher and producer on the CBC History Project.

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