Analogue Wayback, Ep. 2

Ice Falling like Bricks From the Sky

I spent a couple of years in the early 1980s in Birmingham, working as a TV station production manager. The two dominant network affiliates in town were situated at the top of Red Mountain overlooking the city. It’s known for the city’s statue of Vulcan, a tribute to the steel industry that was formerly a key economic driver in the area. Our TV station was housed in a mansion-style building with parking on the sides and in the back. The 700ft-tall transmission tower was also located right next to the building.

Birmingham is far enough south that it rarely gets sufficient snow to shut down the city. However, that also means that when it does get that cold, traffic snarls. Rather than outright snowfall, it’s more likely to get mist and/or rain that freezes, making interstate and in-town travel quite treacherous, thanks to hilly roads with a layer of thin ice. Likewise, the station had not invested in de-icing hardware for the tower, given that this would only be an issue a couple of days each year, at the most. Therefore, when weather conditions included freezing mist and rain, the tower structure and guy wires would ice over. This was the case one of the years that I was there.

Naturally, when a tall structure like a tower ices over, that ice melts again as the weather warms. But it doesn’t all turn to water. Instead, the ice melts enough to break into chunks, which start to fall away from the tower. Some are like ice cubes, others are the size and weight of a brick – all falling from as high as 600 or 700 feet. When that happens, the conditions in the higher air will still be misty and foggy. So you can’t see the ice falling. You only hear the pieces as they fall – whistling through the air or through branches in the nearby trees.

That year we had a number of dented cars, which were parked in the small lot along the building. One vehicle’s hatchback window was completely shattered. The neighboring station had a large chunk of ice go through their newsroom roof. Fortunately no one was hurt at either station, but it really was a bit of a gamble going between your car and the building.

The snow and ice conditions made it hard for people to get to work. Even if they made it to Red Mountain, the car wouldn’t make it up the hill on the slippery road to the station. Essential engineering staff would spend the night, if needed. My main directors – the ones that directed the live newscasts – lived an hour outside of the city via interstate. Of course, they were stuck at home when the snow hit, making it impossible to get to work.

Fortunately, I had a fallback. My weekend director was a very talented high school senior who worked with us part time and directed the weekend newscasts. He lived in town, but couldn’t make the drive. Seeing as this was an emergency – no newscast, no ad revenue – I was able to convince the news department to send their helicopter (flying conditions were fine at that point). It dropped down onto his neighborhood cul-de-sac, picked him up, and flew him to the station. One excited kid, for sure! As expected, he did a great job filling in. Of course, I couldn’t help but rib him about it later, “Don’t ever ask me for a raise. You got to ride in the helicopter. Our other directors never did that! That’s your raise for the year.”

©2022 Oliver Peters