Time Machine

Time Machine: The rise and deadly collapse of KCRG's TV towers

First one was tallest in Iowa, second one collapsed, killing 5, before being rebuilt

Singer Jane Harvey provides a bit of glamour Oct. 15, 1953, for the first broadcast of KCRI (later KCRG) on Channel 9. The 33,000-watt station broadcast over a 40-mile radius (Gazette archives)
Singer Jane Harvey provides a bit of glamour Oct. 15, 1953, for the first broadcast of KCRI (later KCRG) on Channel 9. The 33,000-watt station broadcast over a 40-mile radius (Gazette archives)
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KCRG-TV aired its first broadcast Oct. 15, 1953, as KCRI, from a studio in the Miller Building at First Avenue and First Street SW.

A 40-foot antenna was mounted on the decommissioned 310-foot KCRK FM radio tower on Bertram Road, east of the Cedar Rapids, with a microwave tower added to receive studio programming.

When the station went on the air, it broadcast at 33,000 watts over a 40-mile radius.

Iowa’s tallest

The next year, the station’s name was changed to KCRG-TV, and it filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission to build a 1,000-foot-plus tower on Highway 150 some 5 miles north of Cedar Rapids.

Construction began in January 1955 of a concrete block building to house transmitting equipment. Ground assembly of the tower components began in May. The site then was cordoned off as the high work began.

Wind and rain called a halt to aerial work almost immediately. On June 15, the transmitter antenna began the ascent to the top of the tower. It took nearly an hour-and-a-half.

At 1,085 feet, it was Iowa’s tallest man-made structure.

It more than tripled KCRG-TV’s coverage area, with 316,000 watts.

Even taller

The popularity of television was growing at a phenomenal rate.

About a decade after the KCRG tower was built, J.F. Hladky, president of Cedar Rapids Television Co., the owner of KCRG, and Robert Buckmaster, president of the Black Hawk Broadcasting Co., KWWL’s parent company, announced plans to build a 2,000-foot tower 4 miles west of Walker.

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Construction of the mammoth tower began May 17, 1967. KCRG began transmitting from it in mid-August, and it was in full service by Aug. 30. It expanded the station’s signal to 65,000 more homes.

The new tower was one of the four tallest structures in the world.

The collapse

And then the unthinkable happened.

The FCC required KWWL to remove its antenna from the tower, and the tower was being modified to hold a 15-ton antenna for the Iowa Education Broadcasting network.

At about 11:30 a.m. Oct. 3, 1973, while workers were installing the antenna, the tower collapsed.

Hazel Kout, who lived nearby, was sitting down to lunch with her husband, Joe, a technician for the nearby WMT tower, when they heard, then saw, the tower collapsing.

“It appeared the tower fell down in a big heap, like an accordion,” she said.

Four men working 400 to 500 feet above the ground were killed, as was a worker at the base. Three others were injured.

The cause of the collapse was tentatively attributed to the removal of two diagonals from one section, making the tower unstable.

Rebuilding

Delivery of the KCRG and IEBN signals was interrupted. When KCRG moved operations back to its old tower, KWWL reported the move interfered with its signal.

An agreement was reached in January 1974 to build a new KCRG tower on the site of the collapsed tower, but construction was stalled by a lawsuit against the tower’s engineering firm filed by the wife of one of the men killed in the tower’s collapse.

A compromise was reached, requiring construction of a building at the site to house remnants of the collapsed tower for further testing. Construction resumed Sept. 5, 1974.

An eight-ton antenna was lifted to the top of the new tower Oct. 26.

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The public radio station operated by the University of Northern Iowa, KUNI-FM, was added to the tower in November 1974.

KCRG’s old tower north of Hiawatha was subsequently used as a microwave relay between the KCRG studio and the Walker tower and also served as a backup.

Lawsuits settled

In 1977, the estates of the four men killed in the tower collapse — Richard Lane, Ronald Parsons, Thomas McGlaun and Dempsey Clark — divided $500,000 awarded in an out-of-court settlement. The out-of-court settlement for Elmer Greiner, the man on the ground, was not revealed.

Cedar Rapids Television Co. had sued for $3 million and got half of that.

Other collapses

Other Eastern Iowa TV towers have collapsed over the years.

A 1,358-foot tower under construction west of Walker by WMT-TV fell in high winds on Dec. 10, 1956. Guy wires were not completely tightened.

In 1983, a 2,000-foot KWWL tower near Rowley collapsed on Nov. 27 under the stress of ice and strong winds.

No one was injured in either of those incidents.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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