Investigators suspect equipment as cause
The tall steel fraternity was rocked late last month when three of its own lost their lives at the base of a 1,500-foot TV tower in Iowa.
Leo Deters, 57, of Norwalk, Iowa; 27-year-old Jason Galles of Des Moines and 19-year-old Jon McWilliams of Cumming, Iowa died May 31 in an apparent fall from rope rigging on the KHIN tower located near Oakland, Iowa, according to the Pottawattamie County Sheriff Jeff Danker.
Equipment failure is suspected, he said, but no specifics had been determined a week after the incident.
"There is a break in the rope, but... when a fall like this occurs, those ropes can be cut by the guy wires. So we don't know if that's the cause of the fall," Danker said.
The three men worked for Deters Tower Service in Grimes, a suburb of Des Moines. They were on a job to replace light bulbs when the accident occurred. A fourth man operating a winch on the ground was uninjured.
Danker said the Sheriff's Department is conducting a noncriminal investigation of the incident in cooperation with the Iowa Occupational Health and Safety Administration. At press time, investigators were working to locate someone to climb the tower and collect information.
"We have people with expertise who process crime scenes dealing with motor vehicles, but with this, we have to find people with knowledge who know what should be done, what should not be done; what is right and what is not right," Danker said.
"We want someone who is going to be impartial to go up, be able to see if there's damage to the tower, and whether the equipment is still up there, and just take photographs of what they find," he said.
The Deters crew was into the second day of replacing flash tubes and transformers when the accident happened, according to Bill Hayes, chief engineer for Iowa Public Television, which owns the tower. (Hayes is a longtime contributor to TV Technology magazine.) Hayes estimated the men fell from between 1,100 to 1,200 feet.
The crew was making its second ascent of the day, according to Sheriff Danker: "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."
Replacing strobe light 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.
"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 begins with a couple of guys climbing 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 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 for the rigging. Cable is preferable for heavier loads, but it carries the risk of being damaged by electrical arcs if it contacts the tower when the power is at full throttle. 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.
A TIGHT KNIT COMMUNITY
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, an online forum for the wireless industry.
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 the norm. The tower repair industry is known for attracting alpha personalities with little regard for danger 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," he said.
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."
Bill Carlson, who runs Tower Systems out of Watertown, S.D., climbed his first tower in 1958. He said he'd known Deters for 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.
"He was a gentleman and a good man. Period."
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."
Mary Bryant, administrator for the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said Deters Tower never had any serious violations, but it was cited for "other-than-serious-violations" in 1997. Such violations-like not having Material Safety Data Sheets for all harmful substances-are those unlikely to cause serious harm or death. A subsequent inspection in 1998 yielded no violations.
Bryant said IOSHA would not release any details about the tower fatalities for two or three months, when the investigation was expected to be completed.
Investigators suspect equipment as cause