San Diego - Dec 30, 2004 - Following the tower failure of KSON, John
Buffaloe, engineering manager for the station, prepared the following story, which he has posted to e-mail lists and provided to SBE Chapter 36.
The damage was caused by hurricane force wind gusts in San Diego Wednesday
morning. This was by far the biggest challenge I've faced in 30 years of broadcasting.
I got the call at 4 a.m. in New Orleans. Jose Sevilla from KBNT-TV 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
I called Bill Eisenhamer. It was about 2:30 a.m. 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 30 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
a.m. PT I called Bill on his cell and got some 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 GM, 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.
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 (JP) people became aware of the
situation, they began showing up to help. By 9 a.m. PT there was a
conference call arranged among some 15 people of JP 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 p.m. 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 limiting factor of the crane's operational limits 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 p.m.
in San Diego.
That call held great promise in reporting by Bill 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 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 8:30 p.m.; 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 p.m., 21
hours after my wake up phone call.
When Bill and I arrived at the site at 7 a.m. 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 a.m. Minutes
seem 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 salvageable structure. He was on site by 11 a.m. and assessing
what could be done. By 4 p.m. the tower crew had finished doing cleanup,
and reattaching the shunt feed wires for KSON, and SG and E 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 1,240kHz came in at 36 +j128 (from a
previous 62 +j486). Joel had the match nailed in about an hour using the
existing components, and at 6 p.m. Dec. 30, KSON went back on the air; A mere 40 hours after the biggest catastrophe of my 20-year career at
How good was this, when how bad it could have been? 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 luck luck luck luck luck.
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 Jeff Pilot, who rallied to the crisis and showed up to help in a dangerous and difficult situation.
To the fellows from Tower Structures 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 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 [explitive] 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.