On January 15, 1961, the US coastguard raced through the darkness toward a tiny point 84 miles southeast of New York City. There, 28 crew members of Texas Tower 4 were waiting desperately to be evacuated from their station. As huge swells and high winds pounded the hull of the ship, their radios picked up a frantic transmission from the tower: “We’re breaking up”. And with that, Texas Tower 4 and all of its occupants were pulled beneath the waves.
Built in 1957, the five Texas Towers were intended to become part of the USA’s advanced early warning system against Soviet bombers. Named for their resemblance to oil platforms found in the Gulf of Mexico, the towers were radar platforms designed to be placed out to sea. Towers 1 and 5 were never built. Towers 2 and 3 were situated on the rocky seabed off Nantucket and Boston respectively. Tower 4 posed a much greater challenge, as it needed to be placed in waters twice as deep and on a soft bed of sand and mud. Nevertheless, engineers described the final design as a “triumph”. The 3,200 ton triangular structure stood on three legs, each 100m long and 4m thick. These were supported by cross braces and were hollow so that they could be used to store fuel and freshwater. It cost $21 million, and would be manned by 50 Air Force officers and enlisted men.
However, floated out to location in 1957, things went wrong immediately. Foreshadowing what was in store, the tugs towing the structure were hit by a vicious gale. During the storm, two of the huge leg braces were torn off. Engineers decided it would be better to fix the rig at sea rather than tow it back to shore for repairs. Divers attached new braces to the legs, but the first crew members found the entire tower unstable, rolling and bucking in the swell. In August of 1959, Hurricane Daisy battered the isolated base, causing severe damage. The crew were evacuated while $500,000 of repairs were carried out. You can see the modifications for yourself – in the video and illustration three slender legs are above the waterline; while the other pictures show a skirt of metal reinforcements added at a later date. The following year, Hurricane Donna pounded the tower with 130mph winds, weakening the legs further. By this point, Texas Tower 4 had acquired a new name: Old Shaky, told with grim humour. As well as rocking from side to side, the platform twisted and leaned, creaking horribly as it did. The hollow legs amplified the sound of waves slapping against them, creating a constant booming cacophony. Visitors were warned not to shave with straight edged razors lest a sudden lurch cause them to slit their throat. Texas Tower 4 was an unpleasant, scary place to live, with the crew in constant fear that they would be pitched into the freezing ocean.
In November 1960, all but 14 crew members were evacuated from the tower and 14 civilian workers were brought in to carry out emergency repairs. They attempted to fill the legs with sand and concrete, hoping to stabilise the platform. Conditions worsened throughout winter. The tower bucked and heaved, throwing the airmen and contractors to the ground. The movements were so violent the welders couldn’t work on the damaged legs. Commanding officer Captain Gordon Phelan made repeated requests to have the platform evacuated, in vain. Air Force heads refused to abandon the tower, fearing that nearby Russian trawlers harboured spies eager to steal the radar technology. Commander Sheppard later wrote “you don’t just walk off and leave millions of dollars of radar equipment lying around untended”.
On January 14, weather forecasts warned of squalls developing with winds reaching 60 knots. On board Texas Tower 4, a deafening crack echoed across the platform, and Old Shaky began to sway horribly – another brace had snapped. An evacuation order was finally granted at 4pm, too late. Coastguard and Air Force rescue helicopters were grounded, waiting for a lull in the storm. Nearby vessels rushed to the stricken tower’s aid. At 6:45pm, Texas Tower 4 made its final transmission. From the bridge of the Navy supply ship T-AKL 17, just a few miles away, Captain Mangual watched the radar image of Tower 4 fade from view as the structure crumbled into the sea. When the rescue ships arrived, just one body was pulled from the water. The remaining 27 had been dragged to the bottom with the remains of Old Shaky.
The regional commanding officer in charge of the Texas Towers faced a court martial but was acquitted. A subsequent Senate investigation found serious errors and lapses in judgement along the entire command chain. To make matters worse, almost as soon as they were built, the Texas Towers had been rendered obsolete by the advent of Soviet long range missiles. Towers 2 and 3 were decommissioned and dismantled in 1963. The wreck of Tower 4 still lies under 60m of frigid water, inhabited by sharks, dolphins, turtles, and the occasional visiting diver. In 1999, a plaque was fixed to the submerged leg of the tower. It lists the names of the 28 victims who perished on that cold January night, victims of military and engineering hubris.