Anatomy of an ENG Accident

Commentary by Gary Stigall, CSTE  - KFMB-TV Staff Engineer, but 100% of my own opinion.

At a few minutes before ten on the morning of Monday May 22, 2000, the KFMB-TV assignment editor called over the intercom in an urgent tone, "Could you dial in Telstar Six, One Delta?" The transmissions person was on lunch break. I went into transmissions and hit the screen button that would command the satellite receiver to change channels.

The receiver locked. "On sat eight, Mario," I answered. What we began to see made us all stop our work.

Unsteady cameras showed us that something terrible had happened to a news van. We heard murmurings about "Adrienne". The channel two photographer was interviewing a mechanic who had witnessed the accident. This was in Hollywood.

I will try to reconstruct the scene in the interest of exploring what happened when a KABC-TV news van microwave dish brushed a power line in Hollywood, burning reporter Adrienne Alpert over 25% of her body. This reconstruction is based on the raw tape and live video I watched from KCBS-TV, from the descriptions of witnesses on the scene, and from friends of people there. If you have information that would help more accurately convey the story, please contact me at the phone number or e-mail address given at the end of this column.

There was enough San Diego in this story to get everyone's attention here. Adrienne is someone we had admired for her excellent political reporting while at KGTV for 19 years. The KABC station general manager who spoke for the station that day is Arnold Kleiner, who was GM at KFMB a few years ago. Some of the hardware involved was manufactured, sold, or integrated here.

At about 9:40 that Monday morning, photographer Heather MacKenzie and reporter Adrienne Alpert arrived at a Hollywood location on Santa Monica Boulevard where they would join other news crews to report on a story about child car seat safety.  They apparently agreed that the location they had first chosen to park was directly under the power lines, so they moved to a location a few feet away, adjoining a shop. However, the location chosen has a pronounced slope downward toward the street, where they had just come from.

Heather must have started the generator and air compressor. The mast is a telescoping air tank, rising when pressurized. The controls were in an industry standard location, just inside the rear doors. When the lever is raised, air flows from storage tank and compressor to the mast. Heather must have opened the doors and began raising the mast. Since the van sat on a slope, the mast was listing from vertical. The photographs taken show that the driver side of the van was within a foot or two of being directly underneath some 34,500 volt lines. Above those lines were perhaps a dozen higher voltage lines. This is a busy trunk of electricity.

At some time, Heather went inside the truck where Adrienne sat, and called in to begin transmitting and steering the dish to a relay site. Witnesses, including a couple of mechanics working near where the two had parked, said they began yelling at the two from outside to stop the raising mast. A crew across the street from channel 62 started videotaping the mast as it brushed the wires, and apparently they, too, yelled and waved.

The two women decided to get out of the van's passenger side doors. Adrienne Alpert stepped out of the van. At that second, the circuit completed from the 34,500 volt line, arcing through the top of the parabolic dish to its inner reflective mesh, to its mount, to the aluminum mast, to the van body, its door handle, from her left hand through her body to her right foot. The van was parked so near the building that the door apparently struck the wall. A nearby drain pipe, perhaps filled with air conditioner condensate, is seen in several after shots with a large char mark where the pipe enters the steel mesh-filled stucco wall. The pavement is wet where the water has been draining near the front of the van. Whether Adrienne stepped on wet ground is not clear. When the door hit the wall, the main explosion apparently occured.

Whether her windpipes had been burned or her diaphragm had been paralyzed, she began having trouble breathing and asked for help. Bystanders wanted to assist, but weren't sure whether they were clear of electricution danger yet. The mast came down from the wires rapidly, the seals having now failed.

The closed circuit feed showed horrible burns on Adrienne's limbs. As of the date of this writing, she has undergone amputations of the left forearm and right leg below the knee. Heather was not injured.

The Aftermath

I highly recommend reading some of Mark Bell's Television Broadcast magazine articles on ENG safety. He writes for the site as well.  There's a lot of information to digest, and it can seem overwhelming. But largely the  conclusions come down to (1) training, (2) training, and (3) training. Hardware issues, it turns out, are far more limited and manageable.

Does your staff:
                            know what happens when you park on a slope and raise a mast?
                            know that trees can hide wires?
                            know how to hop away from a suspected charged object?
                            know what to do when their GFI won't let their extension cord energize in a rain storm?
                            know what to do when a safety issue seems to conflict with news gathering?

If you have a training packet prepared, how well is it written? For example, saying that  "you should have 10 feet of clearance for every 50,000 volts on a line" is meaningless. How will your staff measure the voltage of the distant line and how will they measure the distance?

Would a dedicated technician onboard prevent more accidents? Maybe. Surely, this question will be dragged into any litigation regarding the KABC incident. Union shops like theirs at one time had a third person dedicated to set-up and driving ENG vehicles.  Unfortunately, marginal safety loss has to enter into any equation regarding staff cuts. Should truck drivers be required to have a co-pilot to prevent the frequent collisions caused by drowsiness? Should teenagers and the elderly be chapparoned everywhere?

Would better hardware have prevented the accident? Maybe. I'm not familiar with the Will-Burt obstruction sensor. I do know that when you make the UP lever on the mast control momentary, within days the crew will make props to hold it in place.

Shortly after outfitting an ENG truck in 1993 and wiring transmission lockout with mast pressure, I received a call from the operator asking how to bypass it so that he could move the van with the mast up. (Start it in NEUTRAL.) That same van had what I considered at the time to be cool push button controls that allowed the operator to raise the mast and have it stop at full extension—all without ever having to go outside.

My advice here is to have the professionals outfit your vehicle. For a fair fee they make a beautiful rig and are more than happy to accept some of your liability. (Just kidding, guys.)

By the way, anytime you wire an interlock to trigger with positive pressurization (about 4 lbs. for the switches supplied by Will-Burt), be prepared for the case of the mast sticking on its way down due to loss of lubrication. As you drive down the road over rises with the drain valve open, transient pressurization will set off the sensor. You didn't wire an ignition cutout, did you? The transmission lockout will be ignored since you are already in gear, but most integrators use some other method of alarming or interlocking these days.

He Who is Without Sin Cast the First Stone...

I've recounted this event over and over the past two weeks. My first reaction, and maybe yours, was: what was she THINKING about to have raised that mast into that web of electrical lines? My second reaction was: we have all been there.

You have been nearly that close if you've ever looked away at your cellular phone while on a busy highway. You've been closer if you drove home after a few beers with buddies from work. Perhaps closer still if you've ever grabbed a 220 volt line you may have forgotten was energized.

Once, I went up Pelican Butte in Oregon with a companion engineer to see why our intercity microwave had failed. We found pretty deep snow at 8000 feet in winter, had to abandon our snowmobile and hoof it on snowshoes the last quarter mile. As expected, the problem was simply the four feet of snow accumulated horizontally on the usually slick receive antenna radome. Giving a couple of knocks to the tower didn't do anything. We pondered what to do next as the sun came out and warmed everything around us. The entire covering of ice and snow fell without so much as a crackle or creak—simply as a multi-ton thud less than four feet away from where we stood, mouths agape.

Accidents are such raw events, happening lightning fast with life-altering consequences.

God bless you, Adrienne and Heather.