Getting New York Back on the Air

The terrorist attacks that caused the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York City on the morning of Sept. 11 marked the beginning of several unforgettable weeks for Don Carpenter, technical support engineering manager at Harris, and the engineers at Harris’ Broadcast Communications division.
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The terrorist attacks that caused the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York City on the morning of Sept. 11 marked the beginning of several unforgettable weeks for Don Carpenter, technical support engineering manager at Harris, and the engineers at Harris’ Broadcast Communications division.

But just seeing what happened on that day was almost too much for Carpenter to comprehend. "I couldn’t believe that the thing fell down until I saw it with my own two eyes," said Carpenter.

But fall it did. And even before the first of the World Trade Center towers collapsed, Carpenter heard from Ron Scott, lead field service engineer in Harris’ television division. At the time, Scott was working to install a UHF analog transmitter and digital transmitter in Houston for KXTX.

"I was just driving from the hotel to the site in Houston that morning, listening to my FM station and heard them break in that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center," said Scott. "I hotfooted it to the site as fast as I could and as soon as I got in the door, I turned on the TV set and called Don to make sure he had heard about it and to let him know where I was in case he had to holler at me later on."

The call came in. and Scott, along with six other Harris engineers and contractors, were called upon to make the trip to Alpine, N.J., to install replacement transmitters for New York broadcast stations; some of these same engineers eventually worked at the Empire State Building as well.

With the approval of their customers, the Harris engineers – Scott, along with Don and Rob Manion (who had been working in New Orleans), Walt Rush, Jeff Clampitt (both of whom had been working in Scranton, Pa.) and George Owens (on a job in southern Fla.) – reported at Alpine by Friday, Sept. 14. Tony Rock, another Harris engineer, helped to coordinate equipment distribution from the Hoffman, N.Y., warehouse.

GETTING THE JOB DONE

Prior to departing for the Alpine site, Scott finished installing the analog transmitter at Houston. It wasn’t an easy day to work, Scott said. In addition to watching the tragedy on television, he inspected the Houston broadcast towers for possible sabotage, in light of the day’s events. And the tension only thickened when Scott and some of his customers returned to the site from lunch. "Coming back from lunch, the car that I had inadvertently fired off the airbag. That didn’t add any joy to the day at all."

After staying in Chattanooga, Tenn., the night of Sept. 12th, Scott arrived in Orangeburg, N.Y., the next evening, ready to begin work on Friday morning, Sept. 14, to get WABC (Channel 7) back on the air from the Alpine site; on Monday, WPIX went up from that location. Scott, along with the father and son Manion team and Clampitt, also worked on installing a transmitter for WNBC at Alpine; Owens helped to install transmitters for WWOR and WNYE at the same location.

According to Scott, it usually takes two engineers a week to complete a normal VHF installation, plus another three to five days for the "turn-on and check-out process." The work at Alpine was, of course, finished much faster than that.

"I can’t think of another time when we did it [a similar installation] that quick," said Carpenter. "And of course, from a staff standpoint, we dispatched a lot of personnel there." Scott echoed that sentiment, saying that the focus from everyone involved made a major impact in completing the work so quickly.

Part of that commitment came from other divisions at Harris. "It was a concerted effort by a lot of people here that day," said Carpenter, referring to the staff at the manufacturing facility, order administration folks, salespeople, engineers and others who helped Harris provide the necessary equipment in and around New York by the morning of Sept. 14.

By Wednesday morning, Sept. 18, Scott was packing up and leaving the Alpine site. At that point, his work was done. But other logistical issues remained – namely, the amount of AC power capacity that was present at Alpine was too low to run all transmitters.

"The situation at Alpine was that it was not a broadcast facility up until that week," Carpenter said. "[The stations] needed more AC power capacity so that even though WNBC’s transmitter was fully installed, [the station] really couldn’t turn it on at that point in time."

While Scott completed his work at Alpine, other Harris engineers moved on to the Empire State Building after working at Alpine. Scott, personally, was glad not to have been dispatched to New York City proper: "Over the years, I’ve spent many months up on the 110th floor of that building [the World Trade Center]. It bothered me enough. I was glad that I didn’t get to see the city proper. I didn’t really have the desire to see what was left."

MOVING ON

While the immediate need of post-Sept. 11 was to get the broadcast stations back up and running, longer-term thinking has returned to the mix.

Now that the analog stations have been reinstated, "I know the broadcasters … are also talking about reinstating their digital programming just as soon as possible," said Carpenter, "but obviously it’s going to take a while to get back to where they were when one of the major structures in that area is gone."

Another issue many stations are dealing with is transmitting at the Empire State Building. That location, as Carpenter said, "is a better deal for them as far as signal coverage goes than the Alpine, N.J. site, because there are compromises on elevation at the site and, of course, the proximity – it’s a bit farther from their viewing area."

Work continues, of course – and will for some time to come – in the New York area. Many of Harris’ engineers are back, picking up the projects that had been in their queue prior to Sept. 11.

But the impact of their efforts stands. While many of us will continue to reflect on the tragedy of Sept. 11, the Harris employees will be able to take satisfaction in the difference that their work has made and continues to make.