Broadcast Engineering Services of Bonny Doon: Disaster!

The story of the WVOG/WWOZ Tower Collapse
March, 1987

          The winter of 1986/1987, I was in New Orleans, working for Broadcast Technical, Inc. and servicing the nine stations we had under contract. These included WVOG (the "Voice of God") and WWOZ, the community operated FM station now owned by the Jazz and Heritage Foundation. These two stations shared a 350 foot tower at Nine Mile Point, on the West Bank of the Mississippi, across the river from south-central New Orleans. WVOG (600 Khz AM) was (and is) owned by Fred Westenburger, an attorney in New Orleans who also owns WWCR (Shortwave) in Nashville, Tennessee. WVOG's format could be described as "brokered", which means anyone who was willing to pay could be on the air. Mostly, this meant religious and gospel programming from around the New Orleans area, as well as nationally syndicated programs. I heard some pretty strange stuff on WVOG ("I'll send you these sacred frog legs and prayer cloth for only $19.95, and you will be blessed for the next 30 days!"), but, what the heck, it's a job, right?

          On this particular Sunday night, I was making the rounds to visit a couple of transmitter sites. A pretty big spring storm had just blown through town, and it was my practice to visit a few sites that might have had too much water. WSMB's transmitter and towers near Algiers (over the river from Canal Street) was the first site I went to earlier that night...It was vulnerable to flooding at the south tower, so I went to take a look. All was well, as the storm was more bluster and wind than rain.

          I went back over the river and drove down I-10 to the Huey P. Long bridge, and crossed over to the West Bank. After turning on to the Levee Road, I started to go east, along the river levee towards Nine Mile Point. The WVOG tower was easy to see, being fully lit and right ahead on the river side of the levee. It was about 11:10 PM.

          I was only a few hundred feet down the road when I thought I was feeling dizzy. The tower lights seemed to be leaning (and moving) down towards the river. I stopped the van and looked more carefully. The lights then seemed to move back upright. Then it started to lean back towards the river. I really thought I was having a dizzy fit, until the tower lights suddenly moved quickly back away from the river and streaked towards the levee. Then a large blue flash lit up the sky in front of me, and the entire West Bank went dark all around me. I'm not sure what I thought at that moment, but for some reason, I started to quickly drive the quarter mile to the turn-off to the road over the levee to see what was going on. I came around the corner and saw something strange, like a low gate across the road. I then applied the brakes, as I realized it was the 350 foot tower right in front of me, completely blocking the road. I skidded to a halt, missing the tower by a few feet.

          I was so amazed by the sight, I grabbed a flashlight and got out of the van and walked up to the top of the levee. When I looked over at the river, I was surprised to find the transmitter building undamaged and what was left of the tower stretched across the levee, down across the road and into a yard. It had cut the 440 KV high voltage lines on the south side of the road, and missed a house by about 30 feet. The top of the tower had buried itself into the yard, and most of the WWOZ FM antenna system had buried itself as well. The asphalt had a six-inch deep gash where the tower had slammed into the pavement, and the high voltage lines were dancing around the edge of the road, sounding like a strange buzz and crackle, with blue flashes to add to the display. The most interesting sight was a tugboat, pushing seven empty barges up along the bank of the river, right next to where the tower used to be standing. The barge in front had a big scrape across it's bow, and the shiny surface reflected back in contrast to the red rust color of the rest of the bow. It sure looked like I found the reason the tower was on the ground. It was a weird scene.

          Since it appeared that the building was undamaged, I walked down the levee and unlocked the door. I picked up the phone, and to my amazement, it worked! I called Walter Brock, who was on the air at WWOZ at the time and informed him they would be off the air for the rest of the night, and probably longer. They were in the middle of a pledge drive, trying to raise money to operate the station, and he wasn't very happy that he had the program interrupted. He also did not believe me. "Come on, you're joking, what's really the problem?" I explained again that the tower was on the ground and he might as well go home. He started to realize I was serious, but he said he would be right down to see for himself.

          I was just about to call Peter Trosclair, our other field engineer, when I heard voices behind me. They shouted at me: "FREEZE!!!!". I turned around (with the phone still in my hand) to see about 5 uniformed men, shining flashlights with guns drawn. The guns were pointing at me. I dropped the phone and put my hands up. One of them grabbed me and another put handcuffs on. They asked "WHAT THE HECK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING!!!!" I tried to explain that I just arrived a few minutes ago as well, and that I was the engineer for the tower. They told me I was under arrest for sabotage, but after I pointed out the barge just a few hundred feet away, and showing them my ID and business card, we all took a short walk up to the barge. They pointed their flashlights onto the big scrape, and took my handcuffs off. Three deputies climbed up on the barge and walked towards the tugboat. They came back a few minutes later and were not happy. They had found the crew (1 person) taking a nap in the pilot's chair.

          By this time, many folks were on the scene. I used the phone and called Peter's pager. He called me back from downtown. He also didn't believe me, but decided to come take a look. There were flashing lights and fire and rescue folks on the scene. The Coast Guard was looking at the river situation. The levee board officers were looking things over, and the power company was trying to get the tower cut into pieces and off the road. About this time Peter showed up. I quickly grabbed him and gave him the full tour.

          After surveying the situation, we went back to the transmitter building and made a few calls. It was about 2:00 AM by this time. We stepped out onto the levee, and realized it was real quiet. We walked up to the top of the levee, and we were all alone. Everyone had finished clean up and left without even a bye. The whole thing ended about a quickly as it started.

          The next few days had us putting WVOG back on the air with a long wire antenna, but WWOZ was not so lucky. It would take another 4 months for them to find a temporary location downtown to hang their antenna.

          I was also not so lucky. About three months later, I found a summons in my mailbox asking me to appear in Federal Court as the sole witness in what was becoming a multi-million dollar suit against all parties. Needless to say, I was not thrilled. And after it was all over, WVOG and WWOZ were much better off, and the Tug and Barge owners were not. And I still have no desire to see the inside of any Federal Circuit Court ever again.

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