3:30pm

Wed February 9, 2011
The Two-Way

Fifty Years Later, 28 Men Lost When 'Old Shaky' Collapsed Are Honored

"President Barack Obama has written a letter honoring the 28 men who died when a massive radar tower collapsed in the North Atlantic 50 years ago," the Associated Press writes. "The hurricane-weakened Cold War radar station, called Texas Tower No. 4, collapsed during a fierce winter storm in January 1961." It had stood about 80 miles southeast of New York City.

We wanted to know more about that tragedy, and in our search came across the website of the Texas Tower Association and links to stories such as this one by New Jersey's Courier-Post, which tells of the harrowing night when the station went down and the ongoing problems that gave it the name "Old Shaky":

"After the Air Force erected the $21 million tower in 1957, its occupants discovered that even the slightest motion from the waters below would cause it to tremble. Overnight visitors, as the story is told, were warned not to shave with straight razors for fear a sudden lurch would cause them to cut their throats."

Then there's this document at Archive.org — a pdf of the transcript of hearings held by the Senate Committee on Armed Services' Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee. It's 302 pages of very detailed testimony about, as the Courier-Post wrote, the "unbroken chain of errors and mistakes in judgment" that led to the disaster.

And the hearings ended with this statement by Sen. John Stennis, (D-MS):

"Now the chairman [Stennis was referring to himself] has not said a single word throughout all these hearings about the 28 men in the service and out of the service who lost their lives in this tragic occurrence. I have refrained from doing that, not because of lack of concern, interest or appreciation for the sacrifice that they made, and not because of lack of sympathy for their relatives and loved ones, but merely in an effort to keep this committee out of any inquiry except the hard facts facts involved in the design, construction, repair, and operation of the tower.

"But I thought that before closing we certainly ought to express our great regret and respect as well as the utmost appreciation of the committee, the Congress, and the country for the service of these 28 men and the sacrifice that they made for their country. I think that they deserve the same recognition, the same credit, as do those persons who died in actual combat, in time of actual war, and in battle. It certainly was a battle station to which these men were assigned and we bow in appreciation of their service and respect to their memory. They were patriots in every sense of the word."

Now, after a request from Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), the president has added praise from the nation's commander in chief in his letter to the Texas Tower Association.

"For over two centuries, our Nation's sons and daughters have watched over her shores with unwavering patriotism and quiet courage,'' the president wrote. "As you reflect on the 28 airmen and civilians who lost their lives half a century ago in this tragic event, I hope you take pride in your efforts to remember their service and sacrifice.

"Our Nation is grateful for the dedication, pride, and commitment of all those who have risked their lives to ensure the safety of their fellow Americans.''

Update at 4:15 p.m. ET: Kerry's office just sent us a copy of the president's letter, which we'll post below. The senator started the effort to get presidential recognition back in September 2000, after Don Slutzky, who had been a civilian volunteer aboard the tower, contacted him in a bid to (as Slutzky said) "gain some long overdue recognition for the sacrifice of these comrades and their families." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.