High-Level Hero in Vigo County, Indiana

Volunteer firefighter reflects on dramatic rescue.


Vigo County, IN -- After all the excitement died down, Hidekatsu Kajitani said he had one regret.

"I just wish I had my camera up there," he said, joking about his experience the day before.

About 20 hours earlier, in the middle of a frigid Indiana winter afternoon, Kajitani -- called Kaji (pronounced "Codgy") by his coworkers and friends -- was the top man for the Sugar Creek Fire Department.

Literally the top man -- Kaji scaled 475 feet up a radio and telephone tower in northwestern Vigo County to rescue Alan Cook, who suffered a medical emergency while hanging a new antenna.

Cook, 45, was in critical condition Tuesday in Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. A spokeswoman for his employer, Midstate Telecom Corp. of Decatur, Ill., said he apparently suffered a brain aneurysm, and will undergo surgery.

Kaji, a 26-year-old volunteer firefighter with the Sugar Creek Fire Department, came to the United States eight years ago to study criminology at Indiana State University. He took emergency medical training as part of earning his bachelor's degree, Kaji said, and that helped him land the position at Sugar Creek.

He continues his studies at ISU, working toward a master's degree.

While a student in his native Japan, Kaji said he had some experience in rock and mountain climbing. All those skills got used Tuesday.

After being treated for exposure at Regional Hospital, Kaji returned Wednesday morning to the fire station in West Terre Haute. He related his experience, along with his fellow tower climbers: Battalion Chief Paul Watson, who scaled about halfway up, and Deputy Chief Darrick Scott, who started up behind Watson.

The three, along with Sugar Creek Chief James Holbert and other firefighters, sprinkled jokes about their work among barbs aimed at one another as they described the difficult circumstances of their rescue.

Emergency dispatch called them out at 12:58 p.m. Tuesday to the 625-foot tower just north of Mulberry Road near St. Mary-of-the-Woods College. At the scene, firefighters saw a normal-sized man reduced to a speck by the distance involved. Hanging unconscious three-fourths of the way up, Cook's condition was unknown. Cook's co-worker, Mike Norman, said the two men were ascending the tower when Cook "quit answering me."

"My job was to get to the patient quick to pass along his condition, and then to get him down quickly," Kaji said. Cook's condition, Kaji said, determined whether their work would be a rescue or a recovery.

It took more than half an hour to climb to Cook, with Kaji scaling the tower itself since it held no ladder to use. Kaji, Watson and Scott would climb a few feet, move their safety hook up above their position and climb some more.

"We had no depth perception," Kaji said of their view of Cook during the climb. "All I could see was a dot."

He kept calling Holbert on the ground to ask how far he had to go.

"I didn't have the heart to tell him how far away he was," Holbert said. "So I kept telling him he was almost there."

Cook had regained consciousness when he arrived, Kaji said, but he did not understand what was going on.

"He was conscious but he was not awake. He was not able to communicate with us," Kaji said. "I told him, 'Look, we need to go down. It's cold up here.' He pointed up. He wanted to get his job done."

It took more than an hour for firefighters to assemble the system of ropes and pulleys needed to safely lower Cook from his lofty predicament.

Kaji tried to coax him to let go with several different lures, none successful. He even considered restraining Cook's hands so he could not hinder the operation.

"My fear was that he would unhook himself," Kaji said.

That wasn't ever a problem. As firefighters fed rope into the system that lowered Cook, the speed of his descent varied.

"Every time he'd slow down, he'd hook himself up with his safety harness. That's what he was taught to do," Kaji said.

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