Up on Emley Moor…
1 Dec 2005 4 comments. tbs.pm/2088
Former ITA Engineer David Lee tells his story of the fateful day in 1969 when the 1265-foot Emley Moor mast collapsed.
The weather in March 1969 really was abnormal. The structure – the mast – had been designed to withstand the worst weather that had been recorded, for as far back as records were held. But the weather for the previous two or three days was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, or since. The shrubs and trees around the station were like ships in bottles, they were like bubbles of ice, with the branches lying down on the ground and I’ve never seen anything like that.
We certainly would have evacuated the station if the vertical visibility had been reasonable, but for two days we hadn’t been able to see more than 200ft up the mast, which was of course over 1200 foot.
Well on the fateful day, 19 March 1969, I was in charge of the day shift at Emley Moor. Earlier in the day we had heard ice melting and sliding down sections and shattering on platforms. In fact one of my colleagues brought in a piece of ice that had the shape of the stay wire through it. He had it in his hands, and it weighed 15lbs.
At 3 o’clock in the afternoon we had to take the decision whether to open the local roads to traffic or not, because ice was no longer falling from the stay-wires onto the nearby roads. I don’t know if this was divine intervention but I decided to leave it to the evening shift, which would be coming on duty at 5pm, to take that decision and I left the roads closed.
During the afternoon there was a lot of snow about, and the Post Office engineers had dug out their vehicle from just in front of the new BBC 2 building, which was actually demolished when the mast came down, and they left at about 4.30.
My shift left at 4.45, and obviously the evening shift came in, though the roads were still closed to local traffic.
When I got down home about two miles away, before I’d taken my coat off, my wife said “Your mother’s been on the phone: she said her telly’s gone off, can you go and fix it,” and of course as a transmitter engineer you were expected to fix anybody’s television. So I got the car out, and I was about to set off and my wife called out again before I left. She said, ” I’ve just heard on the radio that Emley Moor has collapsed,” and I thought as I drove off, “that’s a strange way to announce a technical hitch.”
Anyway, when I did arrive at my mother’s little cottage I soon realised that there were no signals incoming, so I went up to the station, which was only a mile or two away, to see what was what.
When I arrived, at about 6.15, the police had got the whole area outside the station cordoned off and they were examining underneath the tubular sections that were lying in the road for any bodies. I remember thinking they wouldn’t find anything because I left the roads closed to traffic. Of course that wasn’t quite true, because whilst cars wouldn’t go through because of the illuminated signs closing the roads, you’d still got pedestrians who took a chance. In fact there were two chaps actually hiding under the pews in the chapel (C above) when a stay wire came through the roof, so they’d obviously ignored the signs.
If I had opened the roads, as was suggested during the day, the local school bus would have been parked on the corner by the chapel at one minute past five. It always waited for a few minutes from 5 o’clock on school days, and it would have been there just after five when the mast came down on the corner. It did occur to me that, if I’d opened the roads, I could have been responsible for school children being killed, because that was exactly where some of the sections came down.
A page from the log book
The page reads as follows:
Day [written by David Lee]
Ice hazard: Packed ice beginning to fall from mast & stays.
Roads close to station temporarily closed by Councils. Please notify councils when roads are safe(!)
Pye Monitor: No frame lock – V10 replaced (low ins.) Monitor over-heating due to fan choked up with dust – cleaned out, motor lubricated and fans reset.
1265′ Mast: Fell down across Jagger Lane (corner of Common Lane) at 17.01.45. Police, I.T.A. H.Q., R.O. etc. all notified.
Mast Power Isolator: Fuses removed & isolator locked in the “OFF” position. All isolators in basement feeding mast stump also switched off. Dehydrators and TXs switched off.
Of course there were years and years of litigation and arguments about what the cause was. Ultimately it was agreed that it was a weakness in the design of the leg flange, fracturing due to movement at the top end.
An interesting point of view of someone who worked up there all those years, was that Emley Moor as a transmitter site had always been a backwater that headquarters staff tended not to visit. They might call in if they were in Hull or Scotland or somewhere. But, really, it was a backwater. As a result of that disaster, however, it became the centre of the universe. It became first of all a regional operational centre, one of four. Now Emley Moor controls the UK: if a transmitter goes off on The Isle of Wight, someone at Emley Moor calls out a team on the island to fix it, 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
The people who really suffered were the people who were based at a similar site, with a similar mast, at Winter Hill, near Bolton in Lancashire. All kinds of strain gauges were fitted, and every time there was any kind of breeze, they were out working in a caravan down the road. There was one other site, at Belmont in Louth, Lincolnshire, which is still there. The mast at Belmont is the same height as the one at Emley that fell, while the one at Winter Hill isn’t quite as tall because it’s at a higher location.
When the tubular mast at Emley was built, the existing one, that had been there from the very beginnings of transmissions in Yorkshire – which of course was Granada and ABC in those days – was moved up to Fife in Scotland, and as far as I know it is probably still there.
David Lee went on to head the IBA’s regional office in Manchester. David Lee was talking to Richard Elen.
Pictures from The Transmission Gallery. For more on Emley Moor and many other UK broadcast sites visit http://tx.mb21.co.uk/