Obama to honor 28 victims of 1961 tower collapse


Published: Sunday, January 30, 2011 at 1:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 30, 2011 at 1:38 p.m.

BOSTON (AP) — He fused its steel with his welder's torch in a Maine shipyard. He was there when this Cold War radar station, known as "Texas Tower No. 4," first stood 80 miles offshore.

And when the tower collapsed, David Abbott went down with it, one of 28 men killed when the hurricane-weakened structure finally buckled under the North Atlantic's pounding.

Fifty years later, President Barack Obama is recognizing the sacrifice of Abbott and those killed in the Jan. 15, 1961, collapse. Within the next week, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's office, which lobbied for the honor, expects to deliver a letter from Obama to Abbott's son, Donald, in a gesture intended to honor all of the victims and their families.

It's a tribute long coming, Abbott said, and he hopes it brings some peace.

He was the last member of his family to see his father when he dropped him off in New Bedford to catch the boat to the damaged tower. Weeks later, he awoke to his mother's screams after a 2 a.m. call brought news her husband was dead.

"A day hasn't gone by in 50 years that I haven't had real thoughts of my father," said Abbott, 71, of Malden.

Abbott's father, a welder, was one the 14 civilians and 14 airmen trying to fix and maintain the damaged tower. But the tower, known as "Old Shaky," swayed too much for the welders to work, and the crew seemed to sense it was doomed well before its three legs snapped in a wild winter storm.

Welder Vincent Brown relayed the growing terror of the final days to his wife, telling her of young airmen "forever kneeling and saying their rosaries."

The Air Force's "Texas Towers," named for their resemblance to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, were fixed ocean platforms built sturdily enough to hold the heavy-duty, long-range radars normally used on land.

Placing the powerful antennae at sea extended the Air Defense System's radar coverage by an estimated 300 to 500 miles, and increased the early warning time of a Soviet air attack on the East Coast by at least 30 minutes, according to Thomas W. Ray's history of the towers.

The towers' triangular, half-acre platforms hosted three antennas protected by huge, rubberized domes, the highest of which rose about 17 stories above sea level.

Five towers were planned off the northeastern United States, but only three were built, including Texas Tower No. 4, which was constructed in a South Portland, Maine, shipyard and manned in 1957, about 80 miles southeast of New York City.

Tower No. 4 had stability problems from the start, partly because it stood in 185-foot depths, far deeper than the 56- and 80-foot waters that hosted the other towers, according to Ray's account.

Donald Slutzky first boarded the tower in November 1959 as a 25-year-old representative for the company that made the tower's computers. He remembered it rocked gently in a calm sea, and would lean when the water was rough. But he was told it was normal, so he didn't worry.

Life on the tower was actually pretty sweet, Slutzky said, with a comfortable club, movie nights, plenty of beer and a microwave receiver that picked up a slew of East Coast television stations.

Lurking, Soviet-flagged, "fishing trawlers" reminded Slutzky he was on the front edge of America's defenses, and he was proud of the work.

The Soviets never got to the tower, but the elements did. In September 1960, Hurricane Donna struck with 130-mph winds and 50-foot waves that banged and battered the tower, pushing it so far sideways Slutzky believes it was moments from collapse.

"The wind sounded like a train coming through the tower walls," Slutzky recalled. "Looking outside, you saw an ocean that was going to overwhelm us."

The tower survived, but Slutzky would soon be gone. During a conversation in the tower's club, a diver who'd inspected the tower's supports was mum about what he'd seen, but told Slutzky he was leaving on a helicopter that day and wouldn't be back. It was enough to prompt Slutzky to leave with him, without bothering to gather his things.

Weeks later, the final storm hit, and the tower fell.

Slutzky said the loss left him with years of "survivor's guilt." Realizing the government had done nothing to memorialize the civilian victims, Slutzky, wife Ruth and Abbot began lobbying the White House a decade ago.

With Kerry's help, they appealed for presidential recognition for all the victims, starting with Bill Clinton in 2000. Obama was the first president to acknowledge the request.

"I was elated," Slutzky said. "This really places their sacrifice on the map, in our history, just as much as anybody who ever served our country."

The White House letter, which will also remember four people lost on other Texas towers in separate incidents, "should've happened a lot earlier," Kerry said in a statement.

"Fifty years later, there's still a hole that can't be filled," he said. "There's still a place missing at family gatherings."

___

Online:

Texas Tower Association: http://www.texastower.com/

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top