Three killed in Alabama TV tower collapse

Three broadcast engineers were killed in Huntsville, Ala. when a 985-foot television tower they were working on at WAAY-TV collapsed during an upgrade for a DTV antenna.

The three engineers, Bryan Burkhardt, 27, of Robstown, Texas; Charles Pace, 35, of Tucson, Ariz.; and J.C. Dela Lama, 35, of Hollywood, Fla., were about halfway up the tower when the collapse started. Burkhardt and Pace died at the scene. Dela Lama died at Huntsville Hospital.

Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) is investigating the accident. Roberto Sanchez, the agency’s area director for the Northern District of Alabama, said these types of investigations usually take at least six months.

Sanchez told the Huntsville Times that he was told by investigators the tower was being upgraded so it could handle the weight of new high-definition television equipment. There have been several other accidents around the country, he said, with the installation of the new DTV systems.

The weather was warm and sunny and there were no heavy winds at the time of the collapse, according to the National Weather Service.

Duane MacEntee, vice president of quality and field services for SpectraSite, owner of the tower, told the newspaper that the company is focusing on helping the families of the workers. SpectraSite leases the tower to WAAY-TV, Channel 31, and other local communications services. The tower was originally built by WAAY in 1976 and later sold to SpectraSite. The tower had its last biannual safety inspection in 2002, MacEntee said.

WAAY general manager Peter O’Brien said he was grateful for the help of competitors in the midst of the tragedy. “Tharon Honeycutt (president and general manager of WHNT-TV Channel 19) immediately sent engineers over to help us out,” he said. “We compete against each other day in and day out, but when something like this happens, we all pull together.”

Local cable companies also sent engineers and representatives to offer assistance. All indicators were that 96 percent of WAAY’s audience was receiving a signal. That means all cable customers were back on line, as were most who use antennas, O’Brien said.

“We're still working on what's next,” O’Brien said.

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