When Giants Fall: The Forgotten Collapse of the Warsaw Radio Mast

Written By Natalia Cooke
in Life

On August 8, 1991, the world’s tallest man-made structure collapsed. You are probably wracking your brains: surely you would remember this in the news and history books? Standing at over 2,120 feet (646.38 m), the Warsaw Radio Mast was the world’s tallest structure until the completion of the Burj Khalifa in 2009.

The Warsaw Radio Mast, also known as the Konstantynów Radio Tower, was designed by Jan Polak. Construction began in July 1970 and was completed on May 18, 1974. The structure was made from hollow steel tubes, which were arranged in a lattice structure. This allowed it to reach heights unknown beforehand. Running up the center was an elevator to allow maintenance. A journey from the base to the very top took a staggering 30 minutes!

Once completed, the mast was used by Warsaw Radio-Television to transmit Program 1 using long-wave radio transmission. The height of the mast and the strength of the transmitter meant that the mast was capable of transmitting waves as far as the United States.

To stop aircraft from colliding with the Warsaw Radio Mast, warning lamps were installed on the tower. These added too much extra weight to the structure, so six small towers were built surrounding the mast, each with guy ropes running to the mast to support it.

Despite being a work of technological and engineering mastery, the building was badly maintained, and this neglect led to tragic results. Ten years after the mast was built, an inspection was carried out. The report showed extensive structural damage caused by strong winds. Due to the unique nature of the building, repairs were difficult to carry out, and so were largely ignored. Rather than repair it, a new stronger mast was considered but was ultimately dismissed. Even the repainting was left unfinished due to a lack of paint.

At 4 p.m. UTC on August 8, 1991, the Warsaw Radio Mast was unable to support itself any longer. The mast bent in half and then snapped, destroying the top half of the structure. The bottom half of the structure, including the helix building and transmitter building, was left intact.

The collapse led to an investigation. The construction coordinator and division chief, who were responsible for building and maintaining the mast, were tried. Both were found responsible and were sentenced to two years in prison.

Plans were originally drawn up to rebuild the structure in the same location. However, fearing a repeat disaster, local residents protested the plans. Instead, the existing Raszyn transmitter was used.

Today the remains of what was once the world’s tallest structure can still be seen. Debris has been left where it landed on that tragic day, acting as a reminder of what was once the crowning achievement of human engineering skill.