HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - The following article is partially transcribed from a special program broadcast in 1982 following the fire which destroyed the original Huntsville WAFF-TV facility, which was located atop Monte Sano.
We pause to reflect on a dark moment in our station's history.
WAFF staff members at the time agreed that Wednesday, March 24, 1982 was a date that changed the course of the station's history forever.
At 9 p.m. that night, the anchors, reporters and crew were preparing for that night's 10 o'clock newscast. Viewers watching NBC programming on Channel 48 at that hour watched "Quincy, M.E." try to solve a murder at a fashionable beach house.
Director Stan Evans walked upstairs to check the station's news feeds when he discovered the fire. The stockroom where the fire originated was upstairs; the newsroom and hub of the station were located downstairs.
"I saw that the back stockroom was burning pretty heavily," Evans said. "I announced to the staff that we had a pretty bad fire upstairs, and before I could get on the phone to the fire department, some of the other members of staff were running up with fire extinguishers."
Thick smoke and rapidly intensifying heat quickly curtailed efforts to control the blaze. Staff members left behind equipment and personal effects, quickly evacuating the building as fire crews began to arrive.
Everyone was accounted for within minutes; no one was injured. However it was becoming apparent the fire would completely consume the station. Firefighters' efforts to tap into a nearby hydrant failed – it had not yet been connected to a water main. Pressure at other hydrants was low. Eventually, tanks of water were trucked up Monte Sano to reach the burning building.
Staff members were left with little to do but watch their place of work burn to the ground, decades of memories, personal and professional histories reduced to embers.
The following day, the WAFF family returned to the burned-out shell of their building, sifting through ashes to see if there was anything to salvage. Hope quickly faded as they explored the remains; the upstairs floor had collapsed into the newsroom downstairs, destroying virtually everything. One fireproof cabinet was recovered; even then, the heat of the flames had grown so intense, the cabinet's cover had to be forcibly opened.
The station's then-owners, the American Family Life Assurance Company, told staff members there was no question about what was to be done from that point, only how fast it could be done.
Within 48 hours of the fire, temporary office space was secured, and arrangements made with ETV, Huntsville City Schools' public information service, to use their facilities and equipment to produce newscasts. The burned-out building was razed and cleared within 72 hours, and a new transmitter ordered and shipped within five days.
Seven days after the fire on the mountain, station officials announced WAFF's new permanent home. A three-tenant retail center on North Memorial Parkway, until then anchored by Mason's Jewelers, would be extensively renovated and fitted to house a broadcast television facility.
Work began immediately. Walls were torn out, new walls put in. The studio area, centralized within the building, was designed to be twice as large as that of the former building. At the back of the building, tons of concrete was excavated and a "computer floor" installed to house the miles of wires and cabling necessary to power broadcasting equipment.
Back at Monte Sano, as the fire site was cleared away, technicians prepared to install the new transmitting equipment at a newly built "vault" near the broadcast tower, which was unscathed by the fire and which would remain in-use.
Within two weeks, thanks to the 24-hour work performed by staff and contractors, WAFF-TV resumed broadcasting to the Tennessee Valley. Construction at the Memorial Parkway facility took just over a month to complete, and the WAFF family soon moved in to their new home.
We ended our retrospective broadcast in 1982 with the following words:
The fire was tough. We were slapped to the ground; we rose up fighting. There were days when we questioned – "Could it be done?" There was always someone who said, "Of course it can."
The people here in the Valley are exceptional. They care very much about our community. Huntsville is quite large, but it's a very small town when people are in trouble. All their neighbors band together and help them out. You are a part of Channel 48 – we all did it together.