Behind the scenes: Getting the Space Needle ready for the holidays

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by HEATHER GRAF / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @HeatherGrafK5

KING5.com

Posted on November 29, 2013 at 10:42 PM

Updated Saturday, Nov 30 at 12:12 AM

The holiday season officially began Friday at the Space Needle, as its sky-high Christmas tree came to life.  Now, we're getting a look at how the staff strings those lights, 600 feet in the air.

People across the city cheered as they saw the Space Needle's Christmas tree illuminated at about 5:30 Friday evening.

To make that happen, a team of three engineers started planning for the holidays back in August.  On Monday, they climbed several steep sets of staircase, beyond the point where the public is permitted, and all the way to roof of the Space Needle.

"It's just part of the job," said Facilities Supervisor Matt Waffle.  "Although my mother hates it, she doesn't like to hear about these kinds of things.  I just send her a picture once it's done."

That's because of the three men working to string the lights, this year Waffle was chosen to climb the ladder to the very top of the needle.

"I have a little fear of heights too, so I try to focus on what's right in front of me, what I'm hanging on to, and not the fact that I'm 600 feet in the air," he said.

Below him, coworkers Aaron Elmechali and Jim Mason use a pulley system to raise 24 strands of lights, one by one.  It is Matt's job to hook them to the top of the Space Needle, so they can then hang down, secured at the bottom, and take the shape of a Christmas tree.

He knows he's lucky Mother Nature provided sunny skies for the project, at least this year.

"We've done this in 40 mile per hour winds," said Mason.  "The lights have to go up, so if the weather isn't cooperating, that's when we do rock, paper, scissors to figure out who's going to be the one going up there."

On windy days, the Space Needle sways about an inch for every 10 mile per hour of winds. 

"So when you're at the top, you can feel it lean," said Waffle.  "You just kinda hang on tight and wait for it to end."

The entire project takes about two hours to complete.

By the end of it, Waffle says his hands are usually sore from hanging onto the ladder, but other than that he is no worse for the wear. 

The real payoff comes Friday night, when the lights are turned on.

"When people's faces light up and they see the lights come on, you get that sense of, the holiday season has begun," he said.  "It's a sense of pride that we all take here at the needle.  I'm happy to be on this team."

This year, for the first time, the Space Needle used LED lights to form both its rooftop Christmas tree and the tree at ground level.  It's a change designed to save money and energy throughout the holiday season.

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