The Demise of Playa de Pals: Final Chapter

With the dynamiting of the 13 antenna support towers, the installation of one of the world's great shortwave stations has been destroyed beyond recuperation.
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With the dynamiting of the 13 antenna support towers, the installation of one of the world's great shortwave stations has been destroyed beyond recuperation.

(click thumbnail)Photo by Jep Bogunya, courtesy www.radioliberty.org

(click thumbnail)Photo courtesy www.torroellaestartit.com and www.radioliberty.org
It took only a few seconds and about 32 pounds of dynamite to bring down and destroy $10 million worth of technically sophisticated antennas that had taken years to design and construct.

The destruction brings to an end an era that utilized high-power shortwave stations to reach the Soviet Union with news and information with broadcasts in its own languages. In this field, the station at Playa de Pals on Spain's Costa Brava, with its specially designed antenna arrays, was one of the most effective shortwave stations to reach the Soviet Union on first hop - and Central Asia on second hop, with a little slewing. It had done this job for the United States government for more than 40 years.

In the March 1, 2003 issue of Radio World, I described the process that closed the shortwave operation at Playa de Pals and turned back the land to the Spanish government, "mothballing" the installation and leaving its ultimate fate in limbo.

One option was destruction of the antenna to clear the land for eventual use as a park. Now it has happened.

Cheering destruction

During the afternoon of Wednesday, March 22, the company charged with blowing up the antennas sounded the warning, cleared everyone from the beach and touched a button that fired off dynamite charges on the towers and brought them down.

The self-supporting towers for Antenna Group "A" and "C" were felled by exploding charges at their bases. The remaining guyed towers that supported Antenna Groups "B" and "D" were knocked down by destroying one of the three guys on each tower, causing them to fall toward the beach.

It was heartbreaking to those of us who had worked at the station and admired the great antennas to watch videos of their ultimate destruction. Yet not everyone was saddened by the event. Some viewers were ecstatic, as evidenced by the cheer that went up as the antennas toppled. [An amateur video is available at www.youtube.com ; type "Demolición Antenas Radio Liberty" into its Search field.]

Thousands of curiosity seekers and members of the media found advantageous spots to watch. The nearby hill town of Bagur, the small mountain of Torella de Montgri and boats out in front of the antennas on the bay were ideal spots to utilize telephoto lens on camcorders and digital cameras.

It is unreal to view the videos. One sees flashes as the dynamite exploded and the towers began to buckle. Group "D" towers, the highest, seemed to fall in slow motion as though the 540-foot masts were reluctant to relinquish their lofty stance and crash down into the Mediterranean and onto the beach.

The destruction calls to mind a poem of Walt Whitman. To paraphrase, the towers went down with a great shout upon the hills and left a lonesome place against the sky.

The demolition would be followed by cleanup of the scrap steel, all that remains of the structures, then destruction of the diesel power plant and its underground tanks and the deeply buried cement guy anchors for Group B and D antennas. They are set so deeply that they will only be excavated and removed to a depth of about 32 inches. There are tentative plans to use the building formerly containing offices and transmitters as some sort of a museum.

There are also vague plans to use the 81-acre site as a park with a great beach. Despite lofty sentiments from politicians about returning the site to the people, many cynical - perhaps realistic - Spanish citizens believe this gorgeous chunk of beach land will end up as a site for high-rise condominiums.

In retrospect, the decision of officials of the U.S. government to cancel the lease and return the land to the Spanish government was, in my opinion, probably precipitous and ill-advised. With its existing antennas, the site could have been used to broadcast to Central Asia and reach the Muslim population. Alternatively, in order to provide ultimate flexibility for worldwide broadcasting, even to Latin America, one of the new high-power rotatable antennas could have been installed.

Expensive, certainly, but then again finding another site in the world as ideal as Pals would be next to impossible.

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