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A Tale of Woe in First Person Narrative

KSON-AM Tower Blows Over

By John A. Buffaloe
Engineering Manager
Jefferson-Pilot Communications Company of California

On December 29, 2004, an overnight winter storm did damage to several broadcast facilities in San Diego. KNSD and XETV lost some of the panels from the top of their buildings, KPBS lost its power and backup generator, and antennas were blown off-course throughout southern California. But the real fun happened at KSON-AM, where the top of its self-supporting tower collapsed, taking it off the air along with tenants KBNT-CA and KURS(AM). John Buffaloe continues the story....

I got the call at 4:00 AM EST. In New Orleans. Jose Sevilla from KBNT-CA, channel 17 told me he was on site, that he was off the air, and that the KSON tower was on the ground. After trying my best to convince myself I was having a bad dream, I realized I wasn't. My 442 foot tower had collapsed into a 235 foot pending disaster.

KSON-AM tower in National City, just south of San Diego, CA
KSON-AM tower from Interstate 5 in National City, just south of downtown San Diego, CA. Photo by Bill Lipis.

I called Bill Eisenhamer. It was about 2:30 AM in San Diego. When I told him what I thought I had heard, he mentioned the massive storm that had occurred in San Diego, then said "Oh good. Now there's lightning." He said he would go down to the site and get back to me.

For the next thirty minutes I tried to think of all scenarios. I had no information to go on other than we had a serious problem. At about 3:15 AM PST I called Bill on his cell and got some very disturbing descriptions of what he could see in the dark, and asked him to immediately call for fire and police response, and to stay at least 300 feet from the scene. I then called J.R. Rogers, our IT Director and general "I can do that" guy, and told him about the situation and that Bill needed help. The next two hours were spent in attempts to contact corporate engineering, legal, and our general manager, Darrel Goodin. The holiday vacations and the various power outages left me with no one to inform.

I found the last ticket to San Diego on Southwest Airlines for that day and booked it. Boy did I get the full Monty search at the airport.

In the next few hours, I was calling back and forth to Bill and J.R., who had established a perimeter to keep people away from this ensuing disaster. As the sun rose and Jefferson Pilot people became aware of the situation, they began showing up to help. By 9:00 am San Diego time, there was a conference call arranged among some fifteen people of Jefferson-Pilot San Diego and corporate in what must have been 10 locations. I was still in New Orleans, and concerned for the safety of our people at the scene, and worried about getting there to help. The mental image I had caused me to suggest the best alternative would be to blow the western legs of the self supporting tower, and bring it all down with the least property damage and no risk to life. By this time, Bill had gotten people from Tower Structures on the site, along with Maxim Cranes, and they were proposing removing the dangling 170 feet of spaghetti, and trying to save the amount of undamaged structure holding at this point. The threat of additional weather was forecast, time was short, and a decision had to be made. Clarke Brown, President of the JP Radio Division, conducted the conference call of options, positives and negatives, and personally made the call to take the shot to do what I envisioned as impossible.

By 1:00 PM the crane crew arrived at the site. The dangling 170 feet of tower could be seen drifting in the wind. The people managing the scene began moving from business to business, and residences to evacuate anyone in the potential 250 foot fall radius. The Tower Stuctures crew had arrived, and were plotting their strategy. The wind was beginning to approach the 20 mph operating limit of the crane, with possible rain showers in the area. I was in a cab for the New Orleans airport, preparing for an additional conference call scheduled for 2:00 PM in San Diego.

That call held great promise. Bill reported that everyone was on site, and only running 30 minutes late of their projected ability to be in place. Bill and J.R, leading the rest of the JP crew on site, had clearly established an astonishing operational plan and had executed perfectly. No injuries, everyone clear of the area, and a plan to proceed in place. I boarded my flight in hopes of being in San Diego in time to get to the site for assessment. The weather that had done this to this grand old tower had also managed to cause me to be late to land in Phoenix.

On arrival in Phoenix I called Bill. Tower Structures and Maxim had removed the dangling 170 foot section, and had plans to continue the next morning to clean up the spaghetti and get the rest of the bent but surviving structure to the ground. It was 8:30pm, I was further delayed, and the people at the site were securing and going home. I asked Bill to pick me up at 6:30 Thursday morning (he had my car). I got to San Diego at 11:00 PM, twenty-one hours after my wake-up phone call.

KSON-AM tower from Interstate 5, National City, CA
KSON-AM tower close-up, January 29, 2004. About 50' of the tower was flung away from the apex. Photo by Bill Lipis.

When Bill and I arrived at the site at 7:00 AM Thursday, the tower crew and the crane guys were already there and ready to go. The plan was to try to get all of the remaining junk down in one shot, but wasn't possible to do. The remaining spaghetti was painstakingly, carefully cut from the side of the still standing structure, and laid on the ground by 10:00 AM. Minutes seemed to be hours, and my hands sweat watching these guys standing on skinny steel 200 feet in the air. In what seemed like hours, but was only half of one, the entire section that contained the "K" on the sign was cut loose and brought down by noon. We now had a 200 foot sound structure remaining that said "SON 1240", and looked to be solid enough to stand and work. They promptly finished removing the last of the historic sign, and cleaning up the most egregious of 45 years of wiring klooges.

I had called Joel Saxburg and asked him to come down, because as things progressed, it became more and more possible to get KSON back on the air with the salvagable structure. He was on site by 11:00 am and assessing what could be done. By 4:00 pm the tower crew had finished doing clean up, and reattaching the shunt feed wires for KSON, and San Diego Gas and Electric had restored power to the site. Joel, Bill and I took our places at the tuning boxes to modify the components for getting KSON back on the air. Joel took the impedance measurements while Bill and I assisted and chased other problems. The tower, now at about 80 degrees for 1240 Khz came in at 36 +j128(from a pervious 62 +j486?). Joel had the match nailed in about an hour using the existing components, and at 6:00 PM, Thursday December 30, KSON went back on the air—a mere 40 hours after the biggest catastrophe of my 20 year career at KSON.

How good was this, when it could have been so bad? In every step of this event, there was nothing but great performance of every single individual involved, fortunate timing of every element that had to fall into place, exceptional performance of every person that contributed to getting this done, and luckluckluckluckluck.

It ain't over yet. We have a huge mess of steel on the ground to clean up. There is still the issue of restoring the other broadcasters to the site, and a golden opportunity to restore a fallen landmark, with maybe a less is more kind of ending.

Recognition goes to Bill Eisenhamer and J.R. Rogers for getting there first, getting there committed, and getting it done.

To everyone from Jefferson-Pilot, who rallied to the crisis and showed up to help in a very dangerous and difficult situation.

To the fellows from Tower Structures Inc. who said they could, and did. Brass ones folks. Big brass ones.

To Maxim Cranes, who showed how talented they are at dancing five tons of twisted metal in maximum conditions without once bapping into anything 300 feet above their eyes, then laying it gently on the ground. To their crew, who was there after we left, and who had been there before we arrived, still removing the cranes to go to the next job. These guys could be the MTV ultimate roadies without blinking an eye.

To Joel Saxberg. Always there to pull my [butt, John, butt] out of a crack, and always trying to teach me how to do it for myself. The man has never failed me in 25 years. Every time I call, he's there. Simply one of the best guys in this business.

I never thought I would be a member of the "down tower" club, but as ugly as this started out to be, it couldn't have turned out any better. A lot of people put everything they had out there to get this done. In 40 hours.

Just...amazing to me.

I want to say thanks to all of you that called with offers of help and support. I will get back to you individually, I promise. This has been a heartbreaking, learning, challenging event. And for the record I want to say, I'm very, very thankful to all of the people that made this turn out well. I made some phone calls, and flew on some planes. I held a flashlight and offered some suggestions. This didn't finish the way it did because of anything I did, but because of the so many things everyone else did.

It's now 60 hours after I got the phone call in New Orleans. I'm tired and stinky, and needing a bath, and then I'm going to bed.