News was right overhead; Tower: TV and radio stations and about 100 homes are evacuated when a crane high above TV Hill comes loose.


Don Scott was anchoring the noon news from a rain-swept street corner when a truck ran over a power cord and left only his voice on the air. Marianne Bannister and Rod Daniels anchored the 6 p.m. news from a makeshift set the color of Aqua-Velva. Kai Jackson and Sally Thorner did the 5 p.m. news from the studios of competitors.

That's how Baltimore's TV news looked yesterday, as personnel at WBAL, Channel 11, and WJZ, Channel 13, soldiered on with 12 tons of metal dangling precariously above their studios.

Along with residents of a nursing home and about 100 houses in the Television Hill neighborhood, staffs of the two stations were told to evacuate their buildings.

"This is definitely a first," said WJZ's Jackson, looking back over his 6 1/2 years on Baltimore television, "and I hope a last."

The daylong exercise in televised improvisation began about 9 a.m., when officials at WBAL and WJZ were told that a construction crane and 100-foot antenna had begun to pull away from their moorings atop Baltimore's 900-foot "candelabra" television tower.

Both stations operate from studios on Hooper Avenue, atop Television Hill and at the base of the tower.

Although engineers and technicians made periodic visits to the buildings throughout the day, to ensure that the stations' remote broadcasts were not interrupted, both buildings were effectively emptied by 9: 30 a.m.

WJZ broadcast its noon news from a nearby street corner, using microwave trucks and other mobile facilities.

WBAL opted against broadcasting a midday newscast, instead airing an episode of "Murphy Brown."

"We never want to be the story," Bill Fine, vice president and general manager of WBAL, said as he stood underneath an umbrella at his station's makeshift outdoor studio alongside 41st Street.

"We could have done a show; everybody wanted to do a show. But I didn't want to make a wrong decision and put somebody's life in jeopardy."

Evening newscasts

Both stations were back on the air for their 5 p.m. newscasts.

WJZ moved its operations into a corner of the 41st Street studios shared by WBFF, Channel 45, and WNUV, Channel 54.

WBAL split its operations between a blue van parked across the street from WBFF and the Maryland Public Television studios in Owings Mills.

"I came into work this morning thinking it was going to be a quiet day," said a drenched WJZ Vice President and General Manager Jay Newman.

"By 9, everything was up in the air."

Twenty of 24 bolts securing a six-ton construction crane to the top of Television Hill's candelabra tower failed, said Zack Germroth, a spokesman for the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.

The failure left both the crane and a six-ton antenna that it was removing listing noticeably atop the tower.

By midafternoon, however, workers were able to secure the crane. The evacuation order affecting residents of about 100 neighborhood homes was lifted at 4: 30 p.m., and officials declared it safe to return to the television stations at 7 p.m.

"We were in some real danger there for a while," Germroth said as the lifting of the residential evacuation order was announced.

Technical upgrade

Three antennas atop the television tower need to be replaced as part of a technical upgrade paving the way for digital television.

This new method for distributing TV signals and improving audio and visual reception is scheduled to be in place by the end of November.

A helicopter was used to assemble the crane atop the tower Saturday, and workers were preparing to remove the first of the three antennas when the bolts failed.

Three of Baltimore's network affiliates -- WBAL, WJZ and WMAR, Channel 2 -- share use of the tower, but only WBAL and WJZ have their studios atop Television Hill. WMAR operates out of studios on York Road.

TV broadcasts weren't the only ones affected. Both WBAL-AM (1090) and WIYY-FM (97.9) operate out of the same building as Channel 11, meaning that they, too, were forced out on the street.

Both stations remained on the air, though not without difficulty. At WBAL radio, on-air personality Allan Prell broadcast from his home in Northern Virginia. Ron Smith did his afternoon show from the station's facilities at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Potential catastrophe

At late morning, police and fire officials on Television Hill ordered the evacuation of the Alice Manor Nursing Home and Adult Day Care center, as well as the homes in the 3600 block of Malden Ave., 3600 block of Keystone Ave. and 2000 block of Rockrose Ave.

They also blocked all but essential traffic across the 41st Street bridge that provides access to Television Hill.

Battalion Chief Hector Torres, a Fire Department spokesman, said authorities were prepared for a potentially catastrophic event, worrying that the crane could fall off its platform or even topple the entire tower.

Their fears were compounded by the approach of worsening weather conditions associated with Hurricane Floyd. "That of course is a concern," Torres said. "We expect high winds to hit the city."

By early afternoon, he said, private engineers working on the tower had assured officials that the platform could support the crane and that there was little or no risk that things would fall.

"There was a listing of the crane. That's being corrected," Torres said.

Officials had not been told what caused some of the bolts to shear off, he said.

Officials of Structural Systems Technology Inc., the Virginia firm hired to replace the three antennas, could not be reached for comment.

No place else to go

One of the few residents left in the immediate vicinity of the tower was Leslie Howard, a 47-year-old carpenter who lives in the 2000 block of Rockrose Ave.

He said he was on his way home from work when he saw his daughter Sarah sitting in the family car parked several blocks away.

Sarah Howard, 19, was making plans to spend the rest of the day at her boyfriend's house.

"I'm not frightened. I'm upset over everything I have to deal with," she said.

Howard said he wasn't sure what he was going to do. "I'd like to stay a little longer," he said. "I can't afford a hotel to go to."

Sun staff writers Sandra Crockett, Eric Segal and M. Dion Thompson contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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