25 years ago today, the tallest structure on earth you've never heard of collapsed

Reduced to a mangled mess of metal, the Warsaw Radio Tower is the second tallest freestanding structure ever built

Warsaw Radio Tower, Collapse

The Konstantynow Radio Tower's height was not surpassed until the Burj Kalifa was finished [Pixabay]

In Gąbin, a small town more than 100km east of the Polish capital Warsaw, lie the rusting remains of something epic. Built between 1970 and 1974 and designed by the architect Jan Polak, the Konstantynow Radio Tower, scaled skyward, reaching 646 metres at its peak, nearly half a mile into the air. Weighing 420 tonnes, the signals transmitted from its equipment could reach all the way across the Iron Curtain to the USA, Africa and Asia. A feat of modern engineering, the tallest structure on the planet. And it collapsed, on this day, 25 years ago.

To put some perspective on the Warsaw Radio Tower’s height, it was not until Dubai’s Burj Khalifa was built in 2009 that something else would finally eclipse it. No building in Europe has ever been taller, with London’s The Shard not even half its height.

It wasn’t especially pretty to look at, but it was impossible to miss. Soaring from the ground, a practical mix of steel lattices, trusses and wires stopped its weight from toppling over. But by the 1990s, decades of ignored upkeep created the catastrophic event that would pull it down. Its paint was chipping, wind vibrations had warped the steel, and the structural damage needed to be sorted.

A height comparison chart showing the Konstantynow Radio Tower second from the right [Wikipedia Commons]

On August 8th, 1991, a group of workmen had been tasked with swapping one of the tower’s guy wires, the cable anchoring it from its highest stock to the ground below. A windy day, the exchange did not go to plan, with the gusts buckling the temporarily unmoored tower. It began to twist violently, pulling at its other guy wires, pulling them loose or tearing away from them. In seconds, the mast started splitting apart, shooting shrapnel at great speeds in all directions. It was pure luck that none of the men on site was killed, but within moments, all that remained of the world’s tallest structure was a mangled heap of metal surrounded by the transmitter support buildings that once supported it.

The Polish government quickly launched an investigation into what had gone wrong, the committee coming to the conclusion that Mostostal Zabrze, a construction company charged with the tower’s upkeep, was culpable. Two men from the company, the construction co-ordinator and the division chief, were ruled responsible for the collapse, serving two-and-a-half and two years in jail respectively.

The tower's remains in the winter months following the catastrophic collapse [Atlas Obscura]

Due to the importance of longwave transmitters to reaching the diaspora, the Polish government was determined to rebuild the radio tower, with plans drawn up as early as 1992. As the surrounding structures had remained intact, work began on clearing the field of debris and clearing out the basement levels. But growing unrest among the Gąbin townspeople turning into protests, with claims that radiation from the new tower would be dangerous to their health. Plans were scrapped and a new site was sought, but more protests, this time backed by the Solidarity trade union, saw them ultimately shelved.

Instead, the remains of one of the greatest feats of engineering remain scattered and abandoned in a field in the Polish countryside.

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