This is not a happy story, only read this if you are prepared.
How could a guy that is highly respected, an icon in the communications and broadcast tower industry have a fatal accident? How could this happen? I am trying to figure this out. I spoke with someone with some knowledge of the circumstances. Some of you may have heard of, or know Ernie Jones. He was highly respected inside of and even outside of the industry. He helped write the safety standards. He was a respected member of NATE. So how could this happen?
What do you think? Is it complacency? Was this someone who didn’t pay attention for a few minutes just to let this happen?. Simple mistakes can mean tragedy in this industry. Distractions can be the difference between life and death, literally.
Let’s talk about tower elevators. Years ago, there was really only one primary elevator manufacturer that designed, fabricated and supplied the conveying system for tall broadcast towers (1000’+ towers). That manufacturer is no longer in business and thus, no longer supports those systems. Regardless, these elevators need to be maintained and/ or repaired. Finding skilled technicians that can provide that service can be a challenge. Perhaps, on the fortunate side, tall towers are not installed as much anymore. The need for tall broadcast towers is far less than the shorter wireless structures. For this reason, the tall tower owners rely on the few most experienced tower companies to work on the tall towers and the elevators. If you are a cell tower climber then you may not have been over 500 feet, that’s OK, just understand that the number of experienced tall tower companies that service that industry are far less than in the wireless industry. It is a shallow resource pool.
Let’s talk about riding up the elevator. Broadcast tower elevators are designed, like any elevator, with a maximum lift capacity. Usually, they can hold two workers and a few small hand tools. Unfortunately, like a lot of construction equipment, not everyone uses them as the manufacturer intended. Additionally, like with other construction equipment, sometimes the safety devices are disabled or ignored. However, most tower owners do their best to maintain the equipment and enforce compliance as best they can. All of that said, I have been told that, depending on how many workers go up, you may ride inside or on top. They could use the elevator to pull up rope or to haul up equipment when they can. This is common. As mentioned above, some workers may disable the safety switch on the elevator door. They do this for a number of reasons but mostly because the switches have problems, fail. We’re all careful, right? We know what we’re doing and yet something like this happened to one of the most experienced people in this industry. How did this happen?
Ernie was on the tower to complete a structural study of the tower. He was there with a crew working on the mapping the tower. The day of the accident the crew had completed the tower mapping and was released to drive back home out-of-state. I was told that Ernie had realized that he was missing some important information and needed to go up top to collect that information. He had the elevator, no climbing, right? He had taken the safety precautions of wearing a belt and riding the elevator, he had let the broadcast engineer know that he was heading back up, he had been careful to tie off, he had the Y lanyard/ fall arrest to observe 100% tie off. So what happened?
He didn’t observe 2 rules that are critical to working on any tower. 2 things that people get complacent over. Myself included. Do you know what they are? Read on.
Again, as I was told, he went up to complete one task. Apparently he did it. Then he got ready to come down. He got back In the elevator. He called down to the TV station engineer to let him know that he was coming down. Then he hit the down button.
The elevator ride down is generally 15 to 20 minutes. Not a quick ride. What Ernie did not realize was he was still tied off to a cross member outside of the elevator. A cross member outside of the elevator. The station engineer recalls hearing the elevator start down and then almost immediately stop. He listened for the elevator to start again but did not hear anything. After several minutes he tried to reach Ernie on the radio, nothing. He tried calling Ernie on his cell phone and still nothing. The engineer knew something was wrong, he didn’t know what. He knew that there was a problem!
The engineer continued to call Ernie on the radio and his cell phone. He could not hear anything. As he waited for the elevator to come down he got worried! He called 911 for help. The police and the fire departments showed up. They didn’t know what to do, according to the engineer. The engineer called for tower crews to see who could get out there immediately. He found a tower crew and they got there.
The elevator never came down, everyone is gathering at the base of the tower and no elevator, no word from Ernie, just silence. Can you imagine how they felt? The tower crew arrived. They knew it would be a 45 minute climb. They wanted to climb up immediately. The fire department stopped them because they thought there was potential hazards up there, obviously they didn’t know what dangers were there. This is common when people don’t understand what’s on a tower. More delays and still no word from Ernie. No elevator and time is wasting away.
No one can reach Ernie, no word, just arguing at the base of the tower between the crew and the fire department.
The engineer explained that the crew needs to go up ASAP. He explained that there aren’t hazards that the climbers couldn’t deal with. Finally the fire department concedes. The tower crew heads up.
They climb all the way up, 40 minutes or so. What they found is not a pretty sight. They find Ernie, pinned to the top of the elevator! He had the weight of the elevator pinning him to the roof of the elevator because his lanyard is still connected to the outside cross member. His lanyard was holding up the weight of the elevator with Ernie pinned to the ceiling of the elevator. All the pressure of the downward elevator was forcing his body to the ceiling.
The pressure of the lanyard pinning him to the ceiling caused asphyxiation. Apparently he could not breathe! He was gone by the time the crew arrived. There was nothing they could do to save him. There is only the job of freeing his body and getting him down to have the rescue teams see what they can do. This is something that will stay with that crew forever.
No one can understand the pain the crew felt when they saw this! It is a memory that will haunt them forever.
What happened? The speculation? You see, with the changes in broadcast recently, with the upcoming 600MHz auction, there has been a lot of work due to the changes that will happen in broadcast. Ernie has been doing as much as he could since he was uniquely qualified. You see, Ernie is in demand right now. He was great at what he did and he was called by many broadcast tower owners for help. He tried to make them all happy. He tried to do as much as he could. He tried to get as much work in as he could. He was just shy of 65 years old.
So what happened on the tower? This is all speculation from my source. He was not paying attention and he did not take a climbing buddy up with him. These are 2 common mistakes in the industry no matter who you are. These are 2 things that mean the difference between going home safely at night or not. Ernie should have had a buddy with him in case he missed something, and he did miss something. He never unclipped from the cross member outside the elevator, so when he hit the down button it pulled him up to the top of the elevator. Very tight! Pinning him to the roof of the elevator with the safety harness squeezing him. The lanyard was connected several feet up forcing the harness to become very tight. The weight of the elevator pulling down on the lanyard and harness. Ernie was pinned to the roof, unable to breathe. It looked like he was able to hit the kill switch with his foot. After he hit the kill switch they think the elevator dropped a bit more and there was no way he could hit the up switch, so he apparently died of asphyxiation. This is a very sad day in the industry. You don’t realize the mistake until it’s too late.
This could happen to anybody, please, make sure that it doesn’t happen to you. Be smart, pay attention, and make sure that you have someone with you on the tower that can see you or provide immediate assistance if you get into trouble. Your life depends upon it!
Pay attention to be smart and be safe!
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