A Close Call on the Sunset Ridge Road


Joe Snelson

One of the notable stories this author remembers while at FBN is one involving an incident with a truck we used to get to the KHOF-TV transmitter atop Sunset Ridge. To place this is perspective I should give some background.

KHOF-TV was licensed to the city of San Bernardino. The FBN studios were located in Glendale which is about 55 miles west of San Bernardino. In the 60’s and 70’s the FCC had stricter rules and regulations regarding where a television station’s main studio had to be located in respect to the city of license it serves.

The transmitter was located about as far west of San Bernardino and in the mountains as one could get and place a decent signal over the Los Angeles-Orange County area and yet deliver the required coverage over almost all of San Bernardino. With KHOF-TV having virtually no physical presence in San Bernardino (i.e. a studio location), the FCC rules required that at least 50% of the programming had to originate at the transmitter site, which for all practical purposes, we called our “main studio.” Of course, access to the “main studio” by the general public was virtually impossible due to a very rough dirt road that had restricted access with locked gates and under the control of the U.S. Forest Service.

To meet the FCC’s requirement engineers were assigned daily to the Sunset Ridge site to not only monitor the technical parameters of the transmitter as required by FCC regulations, but to also play programming. Each day the engineer would load a vehicle, typically a four wheel drive jeep or truck, with film or videotape that would ultimately be broadcast from the transmitter site. At the end of their shift they would load up film or videotape that had been broadcast and return it to the studio in Glendale.

That’s the background, now here’s the story. I would guess the year was around 1975. We had been training a newly hired engineer at the transmitter. It was now time for him to “fly solo” on a shift.

To the best I can recollect it was around 4:00 AM when my phone rang. On the other end of the line was our new transmitter engineer. He proceeded to inform me that there had been an accident with the truck while coming down the mountain. He said he came upon a point in the road and the truck started to slip off to the side. He claimed he bailed out and watched the truck proceed along its way with no driver until the headlights were no longer visible. He then admitted that he had a passenger with him. It evidently was a friend of his that he had invited to the transmitter that day.

My first reaction was to ask if everyone was okay to which he responded, yes. He and his friend had hiked down the mountain to the closest pay phone and called me. I then asked him where the truck went off the road. From how he described it, and me still being only half awake, it sounded like it was at a relatively flat location near the bottom of the mountain. We found out later that was not to be the case.

That day Bernie Marston, some FBN staff members and I went to survey the situation. After searching the road we finally found the tire tracks where they went over the side of one of the steeper portions of the front road! The picture below shows the road where the truck went off. What none of the pictures put in proper perspective is the slope of the mountainside where the truck left the road. I estimate the mountainside slope to have been about 45 degrees.

We could not see the truck from the road but did see videotape cases strewn over the mountainside and not easily accessible. Using ropes tied to our vehicle we lowered ourselves down the steep slope and recovered most of the film and videotape. When we got about 50 feet down the mountainside we were finally able to see the truck which was still about another 150 feet further away.

As the pictures show the cab of the truck was smashed from the tumble. If you look closely at the more distant pictures of the truck you will see the truck came to rest just short of another steep drop off. We made it to the truck and proceeded to recover the items inside, including vehicle registration and even the FCC First Class license of one of our engineers!

Point along the front road where the truck went off

Truck finally in view. A little further and it would have gone over another ledge.

Getting closer to where the truck came to rest

Smashed cab and empty videotape transportation box

In conclusion, we recovered the videotapes and items inside the truck but were perplexed on who to call to get the truck off the mountainside. The U.S. Forest Service wanted us to get it removed pronto. Fortunately, Bernie Marston found a junk yard that came and got it for $450. They paid us $750 for the truck because they wanted the transfer case and other 4 wheel drive parts from it.

We’ve often wondered if some type of horseplay may have been involved between the engineer and his guest that caused the accident. Or, maybe it was just unfamiliarity with the road and with it being midnight he got too close to the edge and started to slip off the road. While we were never able to find out what actually happened we were just thankful nobody was injured or killed. God’s protecting hand was definitely upon them that night.

I will admit that both the front and back roads to Sunset Ridge had their treacherous spots and there are more stories we could tell about those. I will briefly mention that the author well remembers coming down the road one night in an old truck and hitting a bump only to have the headlights go out! I quickly stopped the truck and fiddled with the headlight switch in total darkness until the lights finally came back on. To say that was a bit scary would be an understatement.

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© 2011 Joe Snelson

Here’s a photo of the truck when it was new