Ernie Jones is shown at right atop a tower with his friend Dave Davies.
Tower work is dangerous. Service elevators on those towers can be dangerous environments too, even when they’re working right. The elevators must be powerful enough to lift people, equipment cabinets and antenna elements; and the equipment is subject to age, weather and sometimes neglect, so many elevators are not functional or have problematic controls.
We don’t know whether mechanical problems, human error or something else ultimately will be blamed for the death of Ernie Jones, the 65-year-old structural expert involved in an accident on an Oklahoma TV tower Wednesday that has shaken so many in the industry. OSHA, we’re told, is investigating; we’ll have to wait to know what the authorities say. His funeral services are tomorrow (Oct. 27) in Evansville, Ind.
But as we learn more details about the accident, we are reminded of how dangerous tower environments can be.
Dave Davies was Jones’ business partner in the structural firm of Consolidated Engineering Inc. I spoke to him Friday by phone. He was still audibly shaken by the events of the past two days.
Davies has known Jones for 52 years, since they were 14-year-old boys — camp counselors who met in Evansville, Ind., who took manual-labor jobs together. Their careers have intertwined since, on and off. It was Jones who later convinced Davies — then working as a cop — to go back to school for civil and mining engineering degrees.
The duo first climbed towers when they were asked by Tom Silliman of ERI to help with a new 12-bay antenna on a self-supporter in Detroit. “We’d been working with ERI part-time on their brackets. We said, ‘Sure.’ Neither one of us had been on a tower before.” (What is a tower anyway, Davies asks rhetorically, and then answers his own question: “Kind of like a bridge standing on one end.”)
The two were buddies not only in activities like canoeing and kayaking, but through their work, watching out for one another. Davies remembers an incident in another elevator that left him with a permanent limp. “When I had my accident, [Ernie] was in the car with me; that’s what kept mine from being more serious. I got my leg caught between the elevator roof and a cross member. I was trying to hit the ‘off’ switch; he was there to hit it.”
Jones and Davies did some work for Central Tower and then helped ERI launch its structural division some 25 years ago. Both subsequently left ERI but did contract work for it over the years.
Meantime, they put fresh energy into CEI, which Jones had founded in 1990. Davies technically is a contractor for the firm but the two together worked as partners and were the faces of the company. “Basically he’s all things above ground,” Davies told me about Jones, still habitually using the present tense, “and I’m all things below ground, like foundations, grounding, soil work.”
So what happened last week? Davies was not on site in Oklahoma but he was able to put the story together through phone conversations with people who were present or know the tower.
“We’d been contracted by Hearst in preparation for the next ‘repack.’ Hearst was being proactive and wanted to make sure it had all its towers to meet the current standards, or have all the information necessary to run a structural analysis when an antenna decision was made.” Jones was at KOCO in Oklahoma City, “mapping” the tower to assess its condition, with a contract crew and the engineer of the TV station on hand.
Jones “had dismissed the crew, they were gone,” Davies recounts. “He was reviewing his notes. When we map a tower, we typically don’t go on the tower, we build a computer model as the climbers go up the tower; we give them the sketch and as they work their way up, they radio their information down.”
But something required Jones to go back. “He realized he was missing a piece of the information. He told the station engineer he was going to run up the elevator and get it. He did so, and radioed he was going to come down. That was the last that was heard.” After about 45 minutes the station engineer attempted to contact Ernie by radio and cell phone, without success.
Concerned, people on site called the fire department, but Davies said it was a group of volunteer emergency climbers who went up the structure to find out what had happened. “They were hesitant to move the elevator, not knowing what the situation was.”
The details are difficult — Davies’ voice shook several times as I spoke with him — but important to share, if nothing else for those who work in the business to try to understand.
“Ernie had taken one of his back lanyards and a proper climbing harness — a belt with leg straps and shoulder straps. You have a couple of safety devices: a positioning hook at your belt, [and] the second, on your back, is one or two back lanyards, typically 4 to 5 feet long. They have a built-shock absorber.” The lanyard is there to help turn the climber’s body and ease the arresting action if the climber were to fall; it can extend out to about 15 feet.
In this case Jones had attached the lanyard to a tower member but was inside the elevator cab, still attached to the outside point, when the elevator started back down. He was pulled up to the ceiling of the cab and compressed. “The harness was trying to pull him through the elevator roof. He couldn’t breathe,” Davies said. Eventually the tension on the harness was enough to trip the elevator’s auto-off switch, but not in time. Jones, he said, basically died of asphyxiation caused by upper body compression.
“There’s a limit switch on the elevator door,�� Davies said when I asked about elevator safety designs in general. “In theory you have to close and secure the elevator door before the elevator will function; so if you have a lanyard hanging out, you can’t close and secure the door. There’s a physical latch. Exactly what happened, I guess that’s for OSHA to tell us.”
The climbers who finally reached him were able to use the elevator to take his body back down.
It’s important, as I write this, to emphasize that important details are almost certainly still not available to me or to anyone else talking about this from afar, probably including Dave Davies. We should keep that in mind when talking to our peers about this or any tower accident, which can quickly lead to conclusions that may not be true, or information being passed along that is inaccurate. Davies doesn’t even know if Jones was actually prepared yet to come down when the accident happened.
But he is certain his friend knew to take safety precautions. “He’s one of the safest climbers I know. I climbed with him for three decades. He’s always on me.” The anguish in his voice carried clearly over 700 miles of phone system between Indiana and Virginia.
I contacted KOCO(TV) for this article but have not heard back from General Manager Brent Hensley; Davies said the staff at the station have been “helpful and compassionate.”
What will happen to CEI? Like many businesses that work around towers, it doesn’t have a full-time staff but instead relies on many contractors and crews. Davies said CEI intends to honor all its commitments, and he asked that any clients with jobs outstanding with Ernie Jones to email him at DDavies@conenginc.com. “He kept much of this in his head.” Longer-range plans will have to wait on CEI’s owner, Jones’ widow, who has other things to deal with more immediately.
Ernie Jones is survived by his wife Kathy Jones; daughters Karalyn, 26; Megan, 25; and Angel, 7, and his son Andy Jones, 27. He was preceded in death by his parents Raymond and June Jones, his sister Louis Jones, his first wife Krista Jones and his daughter Caroline Jones.Funeral services are tomorrow morning, Tuesday, Oct. 27. According to an obituary, contributions may be made to MADD Indiana Chapter, 9801 Fall Creek Road, Indianapolis, IN 46256. Condolences may be made online at AlexanderNorthChapel.com, and Radio World welcomes them below.
Davies emailed me after we hung up with more to say about Ernie Jones: “ A humble man, smart man, servant to others, a man that could never say no to a challenge or a friend,” he wrote. “I have known and worked with Ernie for 52 years. We have had many adventures. He is a major part of my life and my best friend. I will miss him.”
And he sent me the photo that appears at the top of this web page. “Attached is the real Ernie during better times.”