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What We Know About The Fordland TV Tower Collapse

From a couple of miles away, one witness said it sounded like a "car crash magnified by 500."

So for the six workers who were 100 feet high on the KOZK tower when it collapsed on April 19 in Fordland, the sights and sounds must have been otherworldly.

Five of the workers somehow escaped without serious injuries, but 56-year-old Steve Lemay was killed.

Two months later, investigators with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are still working to determine why the tower - which was 500 feet taller than the Empire State Building - collapsed during a maintenance operation.

The News-Leader has spoken with experts and reviewed years of maintenance records in an attempt to learn more about the Missouri State University-owned TV tower - and what might have brought it down.

Potential 'recipe for disaster'
Some industry experts fear TV tower accidents will be more common as broadcasters across the country scramble to keep up with FCC changes.

"For me, it's potentially a recipe for disaster," said Bill Hayes, director of engineering and technology for Iowa Public Television.

To clear the way for high-speed wireless internet providers, hundreds of TV stations - including KOZK in Springfield - will be moving from one channel to another over the next two years in what has been dubbed the "repack."

What that means is many stations will take the same approach KOZK was planning, which is to mount a new antenna on their existing tower so they can broadcast from the new channel without interrupting service.

Before the new antennas can be added, however, parts of the towers must be reinforced to support the additional weight. 

This reinforcement work is what Lemay and his Washington-based crew were performing when the Fordland tower went down. Their job was to replace some diagonal members on the tower with new, stronger pieces.

Hayes said there are only about a dozen crews in the country capable of performing that task. But with the 2020 repack deadline fast approaching, Hayes said he's concerned less qualified crews will be forced into action and more accidents will occur.

"I don't think we should be pushing an unrealistic deadline if it puts people's lives at risk," Hayes said. "Adding time pressure to the mix and encouraging people to do inherently risky work faster than is really safe... it is a huge concern for me."

Steve Lemay 'worked hard and was honest'
While Hayes's concerns focus on inexperienced crews, Lemay - who was leading the Fordland tower work - was a 20-year veteran of the TV tower industry with a stellar reputation.

Kelly Laborde worked with Lemay occasionally over the last six years. Laborde said Lemay was a true professional.

"I know that guy didn't take shortcuts," Laborde said. "He didn't go from A to C. He always went from A to B."

In addition to being a hard worker, Laborde said Lemay was one of the good guys in the industry, a man who volunteered at an orphanage in India and opened his home to victims of domestic abuse.

"He worked hard and was honest," Laborde said. "And more than that, he was a nice guy, and there's not a lot of nice guys in this business."

No such thing as a routine job
Laborde said he has not noticed a huge influx of work orders associated with the repack, but it is still early in the process.

Hayes, the Iowa engineer, said the Fordland tower collapse is evidence there's no such thing as a routine job on a 1,980-foot-tall tower.

"Anytime you are making changes to a tower, there's always a bit of risk," Hayes said. "Something can always go wrong."

Even with the most experienced crews, Hayes said, things like weather, equipment malfunctions or microscopic fractures can lead to disaster.

Hayes said replacing diagonals, which is what Lemay and his crew were doing in Fordland, is seen as fairly risky.

"Anytime you are taking steel off a tower to replace it with more steel, that has a risk," Hayes said.


Hayes said diagonal replacement work is more dangerous lower on the tower since lower sections support more weight above.

In the Fordland case, officials say the workers were only 100 feet up.

John Myers, a structural engineering professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology, told the News-Leader in April that it's extremely rare for any type of structure like a TV tower to collapse without some type of major event, like a hurricane or tornado.

Myers said there were a number of factors that could have contributed to the Fordland tower's collapse like the condition of the structure, the wind and the work being performed.

It will be up to OSHA investigators to determine exactly what went wrong in the Fordland case. Their investigation must be completed in the next four months.

The maintenance records for the Fordland tower, which were obtained by the News-Leader through an open records request since MSU is a public entity, don't point to any obvious structural concerns with the tower.

The records, which include photos taken from the highest vantage points on the structure, do shed some light on the dangerous and complicated work required to maintain and inspect the tower.

Photos taken from the top of the tower seem more like the views from an airplane window than a job site.

Moving forward
Simply replacing two light bulbs on the KOZK tower in 2015 cost the university $1,900.

Lemay's project came with a $764,000 price tag.

Missouri State spokeswoman Suzanne Shaw said the university is still working on its plans for how to move forward after the collapse of the 47-year-old KOZK tower.

Service has been restored to about 70 percent of Ozarks Public Television viewers, but those who use an antenna for service and don't live in central Springfield might have to wait for months as the university explores its options.

KOZK would have been one of the first stations in the country to complete the repack work.

The Fordland tower collapse is not the only tragedy associated with repack work.

In September, three men performing repack work on a TV tower in Miami Gardens, Florida, were killed when the scaffolding they were using collapsed.

While any loss of life is obviously the top priority, Hayes - the Iowa engineer - said the Fordland and Miami Gardens incidents have ripple effects in pushing back the timeline for other repack work.

"That will certainly slow down the process," Hayes said.

Hayes said he predicts the July 2020 repack deadline will eventually be extended, but that hasn't happened yet.

 

(Story shared by the Springfield News-Leader.  Read the original article here)
 


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