IT WAS JUST GETTING LIGHT when I got the call early on a Sunday morning in February 2003. Someone from the New York City Office of Emergency Management was telling me that Thirty-Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue adjacent to the Empire State Building were closed because of falling ice. As the person in charge of emergency operations for the Department of Buildings I sleepily wondered aloud what that might have to do with me. The dispatcher couldn’t answer that but said police and fire personnel were waiting for me at the site. I knew this could be a stressful incident because closing Fifth Avenue and Thirty-Fourth Street, even on a Sunday morning, wasn’t done lightly.
I arrived as quickly as I could and a police officer who would recognize me was already waiting to whisk me up through the building’s post-9/11 security. He was accompanied by a building engineer who briefed me on the long way up. Apparently ice had accumulated in a mass of newly installed antennas and, as the sun and temperature rose, large chunks of it had come loose. One hit a ledge and bounced down into the intersection of Fifth and Thirty-Fourth. It was heavy enough so if it had hit anything other than the pavement, it would have been very serious.
I joined a meeting in progress in an improvised conference room on the eighty-sixth floor. The immediate problem was already being taken care of. Building staff were chipping whatever ice they could reach and moving it indoors to melt. Fire officials had calls into the Sears Tower and Hancock Center in Chicago to see how they handle situations like this. It was still early on a Sunday morning and they hadn’t gotten any response yet. I called a Chicago colleague’s cell. We often exchanged information and helped each other with big city-type issues. At first he didn’t understand the magnitude of our problem and said all they do is put signs on sidewalks and in building plazas that say “Beware of Falling Ice.” When I explained further he confessed he had never been faced with this situation in Chicago.
The big question was: Why did this happen now and never before?
In the months following 9/11, transmission antennas lost at the collapse were relocated on the Empire State Building. From shortly after it was built in 1929 until the taller World Trade Center was completed, antennas were added as needed to the mooring mast atop the Empire State Building. It’s called the mooring mast because its original purpose was for docking passenger dirigibles. Of course that need hadn’t materialized but the infrastructure was still in place. With the Twin Towers gone, the Empire State Building’s height was once again required for transmissions and a large number of antennas were quickly installed. There weren’t any problems structurally but winter weather quirks hadn’t been taken into consideration.
A contact at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explained that the past few days had brought periods of warm rain alternating with freezing temperatures. Water, which had quickly turned to ice, had collected on the antennas. Then an exceptional rise in temperature just before dawn had made some of the ice come loose. This freakish combination of weather events was extremely unlikely to ever occur again.
With that analysis, the long-term problem was solved and all that was left was to make sure the remaining ice was removed before it fell. The streets were safe to reopen and fire and police personnel resumed their regular duties. I was elected to stay until the ice removal was completed. A building employee showed me the way up to where the work was being done. I’d been to the highest observation deck open to the public in the past, but now I was going still higher. We took an elevator, and then stairs, until I found myself in a small domed room with chunks of ice melting on the floor. I climbed a metal ladder to a hatch toward the top of the dome and crawled out onto an exterior ledge that surrounded it. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was on the same spot where King Kong had gently placed Fay Wray before the airplanes got him and he fell. The ledge, which encircled the upper part of the dome just below the antennas, was just a few feet wide with cables going encircling it as a sort of railing. If I went any higher I’d need a radiation suit because of the microwaves from the antennas. I was to wait on the ledge until all of the ice was removed and I could confirm that the situation was safe.
By now the temperature had risen to the mid-forties, without even the slightest breeze. Instead of being atop the tallest building in New York, I felt like I was on someone’s back porch. It was calm, quiet and clear underneath a low cloud cover. The five boroughs and their landmarks were distinctly defined below me as though on a map. Anyone on the street would have said the day was cloudy, but from my vantage point I was able to see to edge of the clouds. I’ve heard cloud cover referred to as a “ceiling” but this was the first time I’d ever really seen what that meant. The ceiling had no walls and it was a sunny day at its edge, miles away in all directions. I could see to the Rockaway peninsula and the sun sparkling on the Atlantic Ocean. I could see as far as Connecticut in the northeast and Pennsylvania in the west.
Eventually the workers finished removing all of the ice and I was free to leave, but I didn’t. I knew I’d never see such a spectacular view again. As the sun began setting, the eastern edges of the cloud ceiling darkened. But in the distant west, the open strip of sky blazed in shades of deep orange and red, with some bright blue and yellow contrasting with the darkened land below and clouds above. Even the building engineer, who had seen the view at this level many times before, said that it was the most stunning sunset he’d ever witnessed. And then it got better. A small wedge opened in the clouds and some of the fiery dying sunlight came through. It sparkled across the upper stories of the skyscrapers between me and Central Park, leaving their lower levels and the city beyond in darkness. The New York skyline was ablaze. I was at the top of the Empire State Building looking down on it…and it was all in a day’s work.