The tall steel fraternity was rocked this week when three of its own lost their lives at the base of a 1,500-foot TV tower in Iowa.
Pottawattamie County Sheriff Jeff Danker said Leo Deters, 57, of Norwalk, Iowa; 27-year-old Jason Galles of Des Moines and 19-year-old Jon McWilliams of Cumming, Iowa were killed Wednesday afternoon in an apparent fall from the KHIN tower located near Oakland, Iowa. The three men worked for Deters Tower Service in Grimes, a suburb of Des Moines. A fourth man operating a winch on the ground was uninjured.
"I think it was equipment failure of some type," Danker said.
The crew was replacing strobe light flash tubes and transformers when the accident occurred, according to Bill Hayes, chief engineer for Iowa Public Television, which owns the tower. (Hayes is a longtime contributor to TV Technology magazine.) He estimated the men were 1,100 to 1,200 feet up the tower when the mishap occurred -- between 12:22 p.m., when the antenna was powered down to make the area safe for the crew, and 2:43 p.m., when the Pottawattamie County Sheriff's department received the 911 call.
"We looked at the log book... at 12:22, we went into low-power operation; about 40 percent," Hayes said. "That was an indicator they were getting up to the higher level."
The KHIN tower is a 1,506-foot linear structure with a top-mounted antenna and five levels of strobes with three lights per level and a beacon at the top. The strobes and beacon are situated and maintained in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration rules to prevent air traffic collisions, such as the one that occurred June 1 in Georgia (see "Fatal Helo Crash Takes Out TV Signal"). Hayes said several tubes were out on the KHIN tower, and that the Deters crew was mid-way into their second day on the job.
Replacing tubes is a fairly routine operation, said Craig Snyder, former chairman of the board of the National Association of Tower Erectors and principal of Sioux Falls Tower and Communications in Sioux Falls, Iowa.
"It's a pretty basic job on a broadcast tower. There's nothing unusual on how you would rig a tower to replace strobe lights" he said. "Each company probably has a little bit different procedure to do a job like that, but in general, you rig the tower with a winch or a hoist and install cable and ropes to hoist the equipment and personnel up and down."
The rigging procedure was described by several industry sources roughly as follows: A couple of guys climb the tower with a rope and a block and tackle. The block and tackle is attached to the top of the tower near the base of the antenna. A cable winch is anchored to the ground near the tower. The rope is first used to pull the cable up through the block and tackle, and later as "tagline" to keep the cable, or "load line," from whipping into the tower. The load line is counterbalanced by a "headache ball" that usually has a hook mechanism for hauling loads up the tower. It's not unusual for the crew to ride up and down on the load line.
At the KHIN tower site, rescue workers told the Omaha World-Herald, "the victims were laying on the ground with rope all around them." Hayes said the crew was using Kevlar rope, not cable, for the rigging. Cable is generally preferable for heavier loads, but it carries with it the risk of being damaged by electrical arcs if it contacts the tower when the power is at full throttle. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration rules do not prohibit crews from riding synthetic rope load lines.
Hayes recounted that witnesses at the scene said the headache ball separated from the load line, which became entangled in nearby guy wires at mid-level. There was no apparent structural damage to the tower, and no problems with arcing, he said.
"In our best estimation, they were riding up on the hoist ball, and somehow the ball detached or something went wrong with the rope," he said.
Sheriff Danker said the crew was making its second ascent of the day.
"They'd been up the tower earlier in the day, they'd come down for lunch, and they were on their way up the tower again when this occurred."
Danker said the winch operator recalled that the crew was "going up, the line went slack, and he looked up and noticed them falling."
The Iowa fatalities brings the total number of communications tower-related deaths this year to 15, more than twice last year's total, according to the Wireless Estimator.
Every tower accident reverberates through the tight-knit community of climbers, but Leo Deters was an industry veteran whose death was met with incredulity. Deters was considered by those who knew him as a careful individual in a business where high-risk behavior is a job requirement. The tower repair industry is known for attracting alpha personalities who do things like ride guy wires to the ground. Few other businesses yield nicknames like "Death Action."
"I know Leo Deters, and his reputation is outstanding with regard to quality and safety and being meticulous in everything he did, and I think any customer you talk to of his would agree," Snyder said. "He always kept a small organization, and more often than not, he was the man in charge on the job site."
Snyder said Deters started on tall towers in the mid-'70s, and they remained the mainstay of his business.
"He was a founding member of NATE, and an advocate for tower safety," Snyder said.
Bill Carlson said Deters was "a gentleman and a good man. Period." Carlson, who runs Tower Systems out of Watertown, S.D., climbed his first tower in 1958. "I've known him for a long time. He'd been in the business for quite a few years. He had a very good safety record. He had good equipment. I was totally shocked. I do not know what happened, and I don't expect to know it.
"We're totally appalled and very, very sorry for his family. It's a tragedy. I am really amazed that he had a problem... there is such a thing as accidents."
IPTV owns or leases 18 towers, including a couple of 2,000-footers. Another 1,500-footer is going up near Mason City. Hayes said Deters had been on IPTV's towers 32 times in the last three years.
"I know he's been on every tower we have. He's probably been on every tower in Iowa and the surrounding states," he said. "These guys are tremendously safe. This is not a cowboy operation. These guys are good.... inherently, it's a dangerous job because if you make a mistake, there aren't any small ones. Leo didn't take any unnecessary risks or do anything unsafe."
Snyder, himself a tower climber for 22 years, also knew Galles, who worked for Sioux Falls Tower before moving to Des Moines.
"Everyone here knew Jason," he said. "He was a sharp kid, and very good at his job."
Iowa OSHA is conducting an investigation into the incident, as is the Pottawattamie County Sheriff's department.
"We would like to continue the investigation, and at least try to find out why this happened," he said. "It's not criminal, it's something we're not required to continue the investigation on. We'd just like to know what happened."