Well-respected tower company owner dies
Synthetic rope failure being investigated as cause for three tower technicians falling 1,100 feet
June 1, 2006 - Three Iowa men were killed yesterday afternoon after they fell 1,100 feet from a television tower near Oakland, IA, according to Pottawattamie County Tower Climber Deathssheriff's officials who said they received a call at 2:43 p.m. that the workers had fallen from an Iowa Public Television tower, five miles east of Oakland.

Pottawattamie Sheriff Jeff Danker said that two other workers on the ground witnessed the accident, but he did not have any immediate information as to how the accident occurred. 

The tower crew members, Leo Deters, 57, of Norwalk, Jason Galles, 27, of Des Moines, and Jon McWilliams, 19, of Cumming, died in the accident.

Galles and McWilliams were employees of Deters Tower Service of Des Moines, IA owned by Leo Deters who fell with his men yesterday.

Bill Hayes, director for engineering at IPTV, said the crew was on the 1,450' tower, replacing high intensity strobe lights when the accident happened.

"They were up fairly high when something went wrong and all three members of the crew fell,' Hayes said. He said an investigation is underway to determine the actual cause.

A fourth member of the crew, Hayes said, was working on the ground, operating a winch, hoisting equipment. He said that the company has been providing services to IPTV for the past 20 years.

At 12:22 p.m. yesterday, the tower's broadcast antenna went into low-power mode to protect those working on the tower. Hayes said he believes at this time the crew may have been near the antenna. He said they finished most of the lights on the bottom of the tower and were working on the top when the accident occurred.

"We were shocked and saddened to learn of the tragic accident today at the KHIN transmitter site near Walnut and Red Oak," said Daniel Miller, Executive Director and General Manager of IPTV.

"Deters Tower Service was often retained by Iowa Public Television for routine tower maintenance like this. These men were our colleagues and we mourn their loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families during this difficult time," he said.

Leo Deters, a soft spoken popular and professional tower erector was president of DetersTower Service, a tower company that typically maintained one crew.

Previously employed by Tiner Tower, he started his company 22 years ago. As a founding member, Deters had taken an active role in supporting the National Association of Tower Erectors. The tower maintenance firm is also an associate member of the Iowa Broadcasters Association. They cover an eight state service area.

Visitation for Deters will be held  tomorrow at St. John's Cathlolic Church in Norwalk. from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The funeral will be at 11:00 a.m. Saturday at the church. Services for Galles and McWilliams have not been announced.

Bill Carlson, president of Tower Systems, Inc. of South Dakota and Orlando, had known Deters for many years. "I was totally shocked that this had happened to him," Carlson said, citing that the Iowa contractor was known for having good equipment and performing projects safely."

Carlson, who was the founding force behind NATE, said that "Deters was a great guy and a credit to the industry."

Craig Snyder, President of Sioux Falls Tower and Communications and the former Chairman of NATE, also believed that he was a quality and safety conscious operator.

"Particularly in the state of Iowa, he was the go-to-guy in the broadcast industry.  I've known him for 17 years and he was always gentlemanly," Snyder said.

"It's going to be a big loss in the industry and in this part of the country," he said. Snyder, like many other climbing professionals, was equally as troubled by the loss of Leo's two co-workers. Galles, nicknamed Chilli, had previously worked for Snyder.

The men's deaths come less than a month after a 51-year-old Des Moines man, working for a Carlise company, was killed in Lawton when he fell 40' inside a water tower on which he was installing transmission lines.

Yesterday's deaths brought the total number of climbers  that have been killed by falling from a communications structure to15 this year. The abnormally high number has rocked the industry to its core. Last year there were only seven, the total of climbers that were killed this year last month.

Since all three men fell at the same time, industry observers believe they might have been being lifted to or ascending from their work station when the accident occurred near the top of the tower.

OSHA was at the site today and will interview the witnesses and identify if the company was using wire rope and if there was arcing damage to the winch line that would separate it; see if the wire rope caught onto a tower member or accessory; check to see if the line two-blocked, and investigate all other possible causes for the accident. They'll also identify if the crew was using synthetic rope.

A personnel platform must be used to hoist more than one employee to their work station unless an employer can demonstrate that specific circumstances or conditions preclude its use. If a boatswains seat-type or full body seat harness is used, no more than two employees may be hoisted at a time.

Phil Reed, a volunteer emergency medical technician for the Oakland Fire and Rescue team, told the World Herald that there was little that emergency workers could do.

"You don't see much except the victims laying on the ground with ropes all around them," Reed said. "I don't know if that was holding them up or what, but they were already dead," Reed said this morning.

It was not known if Reed was referring to wire rope, a term not typically used by emergency workers or law enforcement officials. Although high strength synthetic rope can be used for lifting heavy loads, it can be easily cut if it rubs against a brace or other sharp object.

Sheriff Danker stated this afternoon that  synthetic rope had been used for the climbers' hoist line and its apparent failure would be the subject of their and OSHA's investigation.

OSHA's riding the line instruction  does not specifically state that employees can not be hoisted to their work stations using synthetic rope; however, the document identifies wire rope as the means for lifting employees. Numerous professionals contacted today believe that using synthetic rope would not be in compliance.