The day dawned clear and cool. I was sitting in the master control room of WIS-TV standing the engineering watch on November 11, 1971. I remember looking out the window in the middle of the door next to the bank of monitors at the sunlight glinting into the room through the venetian blinds. My friend Bill was the “switcher” on duty and I was loading and setting up the video tapes for the Sunday morning shows. There were no live shows on Sundays until the afternoon so the studio floor cameras were silently standing by.
The station was busier than usual because the demolition of the Columbia Hotel just down the street from the station was scheduled for that morning. It was the first of two Gervais Street Hotel implosions; the second was the Wade Hampton Hotel which occurred on July 21, 1985. The news team had arrived early, grabbed their film cameras and headed out to cover the story. The two way frequency we shared with WIS Radio was alive with chatter as the countdown to the implosion neared.
Bill and I had planned on watching the demolition from the roof of Studio “A” underneath the legs of the 400 foot self supporting tower that was one of the most prominent features of the Columbia skyline. Unfortunately for Bill, delays pushed the event closer and closer to station break time. We were coming out of a film show with two 30 second film Public Service Announcements, a voice over slide station identification then a half hour videotape show from one of the local churches. Everything was loaded and ready so Bill said that he would cover the break by himself so I could stay out there and watch the building come down.
As I stood there watching the structure’s last moments, I thought of some happy times I had there. My friend Mackey Quave was the morning man on WQXL in the mid 60s. Their studios were on the second floor of the Hotel. Before I started doing the Nightbeat Show out at Doug Broome’s Drive In Restaurant, I was doing the “All Night Satellite” at WCOS just a couple of blocks away at the Cornell Arms Apartments. Sometimes, I was too wired up after the show to go home and to bed, so I’d walk up Sumter Street and visit Mackey as he did his morning show. We had some good times there. Burning news copy turned upside down was occasionally involved. Mackey could handle anything.
Finally the ten second countdown crackled over the radio less than a minute before the station break. I felt bad that Bill was going to miss the event. Little did I suspect that the coin would be flipped within the minute.
A series of loud booms occurred and the building slowly folded in on itself and came down almost in one chunk. I remember someone saying on the radio that part of the building fell outside of the designated fall zone. The two way radio crackled with the announcement that some nearby power lines had been pulled down by the falling debris.
“Rut Roh” I thought. Well not exactly “rut roh” but you get the meaning. Bill called out “Rick! Get in here; something is wrong with the video tapes.” I came through that short doorway without even stepping on the three steps that led to it from the control room floor.
“The tape machines won’t roll”, Bill said as I rushed down the row of equipment racks to the tape machines in the projection room behind the control room. “What the heck!” I said as I looked to make sure that I had put the machines into remote control for Bill to start. They were! I took control back to the local panel and tried to roll them myself. Nothing!!!!
In the meantime Bill had put up the dreaded “Please Stand By” slide. As a control room operator, this was the last thing you wanted to see on the air. It meant that something was “BAD” wrong. The only thing worse was to put up “black” a completely dark screen. The next film show was sitting in the film rack to be played in an hour. I pulled the show that had just completed, loaded the show and Bill rolled it. It would be at the wrong time but it was better than nothing.
Now, I had a half hour to figure out what had happened and get it fixed. I check the fuses on the servo modules on the tape machines and sure enough they had all blown. I replaced them with new fuses and they immediately blew again. This was not going to be easy. I asked Bill to call Tom, my new boss and tell him what was going on. By the time I had the servo modules pulled and on the bench and the first one opened. Tom had arrived. To my amazement he was in a good mood despite being awakened on a Sunday morning. After troubleshooting we determined that the decoupling transistors which isolated the servos from the incoming power source, where all blown. There were eight of these transistors in four modules in two machines.
I pulled the spare parts drawer where we kept the transistors and thank goodness there were exactly eight of those transistors in the bin. I got busy replacing the transistors in the first module while Tom checked the rest of the circuitry in the other module to make sure there was no damage to the other components. These weren’t little transistors stuck into a socket on a circuit board. These babies were as big around a quarters and a quarter inch thick. They were held in place by two hex head screws and had to be coated on the bottom by a heat conducting gel to dissipate the heat they generated. About an hour later, we had the first module ready for “smoke testing” that is, to power it up and see if it worked or smoked. To our relief it worked! That was a good thing, because we would have big problems if we blew even one of those transistors. By the end of the shift we were back up to speed with all machines.
Tom and I went downstairs to the canteen to eat a delayed lunch. Oh and the next morning, we ordered 16 more decoupling transistors. It is worth noting that when the Wade Hampton Hotel was imploded in 1985, they shut down the power grid for a block around the hotel. Even the State House was dark and H - Hour. But nobody lost decoupling transistors and had a story to tell. Oh MY!