July 13, 2020

WVOM airlift of propane an adventure> Copter searching for lost tanks

Jerry Evans has been in the radio business a long time, both as a DJ and a station owner from San Diego to Seattle to Chicago. Until he decided to buy WVOM-FM in Bangor, however, he had no idea that Maine talk radio was not just a job, but an adventure.

“The storm has been a challenge for all of us, to say the least,” said Evans. “Every day is memorable for something.”

It all began last Friday, when the station’s nearly round-the-clock emergency broadcasting schedule was suddenly forced to rely on candelight and extension cords that snaked through its State Street studio. The next day, when the storm knocked out power to the station’s transmitter on Passadumkeag Mountain, a convoy of intrepid snowmobilers braved the icy slopes to haul 22 propane tanks to the generators to keep the station on the air.

For the next few days, WVOM and its army of volunteers maintained a broadcasting schedule widely praised as a folksy lifeline to darkened homes from Calais to Augusta. But as the fuel supply dwindled, Evans and his crew were forced to figure a way to get more propane tanks up the treacherous mountain.

“We calculated that we had enough propane fuel to get us past midnight on Wednesday,” Evans said. “After that we would have been off the air. But we’ve gotten such an amazing outpouring of support from people that I was confident that wouldn’t happen.”

It didn’t, although the latest episode in the ongoing WVOM storm saga did not unfold as smoothly as they’d hoped.

The Army National Guard planned to send a helicopter crew to Passadumkeag Mountain Wednesday morning on behalf of the Maine State Police, which broadcasts from the same 673-foot tower used by WVOM and WHCF. When Guard officials learned of WVOM’s plight, they offered to airlift propane tanks that the station could use as well.

With the help of several members of the Pine Tree Snowmobile Club, the Guard helicopter took off from Milford with 20 propane tanks suspended in a net sling. The first load was deposited safely near the transmitter site, where the snowmobilers already were waiting to retrieve them. When the helicopter picked up the remaining 22 tanks, it ran into problems.

“The Guard was in the air with the load when the wind really picked up and created a dangerous situation for the helicopter crew,” said Evans, who was driving back from the mountain when he heard about the troubled mission. “The crew was forced to drop the tanks, and they landed in a remote wooded area near Costigan. We wound up sharing the fuel at the site, which we had been doing all along anyway.”

Undaunted, the WVOM volunteers remained on the frigid mountain until early evening. A couple of hardy souls, including scallop diver Dan Placzek, even climbed partway up the tower in the biting winds to chip ice from the structure. Meanwhile, Arthur Bard of Lincoln, a retired Bangor Hydro worker, found the source of the electrical problem and repaired the wires.

Shortly after 5 p.m., with the flick of a circuit breaker 1,500 feet in the sky, the station was back on line again for the first time in days.

“It really feels good to be able to help out,” Tom Thornton, the president of Freightliner of Maine and a WVOM volunteer, said by cellphone from the mountaintop Wednesday evening. “But, boy, it’s cold up here!”

On Thursday morning, upon hearing that another helicopter had just taken off to retrieve the ditched propane tanks — with Placzek, the unsinkable scallop diver aboard — Evans settled back into his chair and sighed.

“It’s been a unique experience,” he said with a weary yet satisfied smile.

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