Sugar Creek volunteer firefighter Hidekatsu Kajitani describes the effort it took to climb 475 feet to rescue Alan Cook from the broadcast tower.
Photo credit: Tribune-Star/Jim Avelis
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.
After more than two hours on the frozen tower, Cook reached the bucket of the Honey Creek Fire Department's ladder truck, one of several units that arrived to assist. From there, Cook was lowered to waiting paramedics.
Kaji got on the ground to receive the congratulations of his co-workers. His descent was slower than his climb, he said, because exhaustion compounded the difficulty.
He said equipment and training made the difference. Among his gadgets, a special mask used to warm the air before it was drawn into his lungs.
"It looks funny, but it helped me a lot," Kaji said. "People make fun of me for all the gadgets."
After looking around the room, he added, "They promised not to make fun of me for 24 hours."
The climb wore him out, especially once the adrenaline wore off.
"I can feel my legs, my back, my arms," Kaji said. With a glance at his chief -- roughly twice his age -- he added, "Now I know how the chief feels every day."
Holbert leaned back in his chair and reminded Kaji how fleeting glory can be.
It was a unique rescue, one that firefighters at Sugar Creek plan to write up as an experience to share with other professionals.
"I've been on this department 30 years, and we've never done anything like it," Holbert said. One thing he said he knew for certain: It won't be as hard to motivate his team to do their rope training.
The only casualty in the incident was Watson's hand-held radio, which fell a couple hundred feet, missing his deputy chief on the way down.
Watson joked that it was his way of ensuring faster promotion in the department -- create a vacancy higher up the chain of command.
"I'm here today to take care of that problem," Scott said.
People have been asking him since, Kaji said, "Did I look down? Was I scared?"
He did look down, he said, and he did occasionally have concerns that go along with the work.
At one point, Holbert said, Kaji radioed down to ask if anybody knew how many people the tower could hold before their weight caused it to collapse. Not an unreasonable concern, but one based on professional expertise, and based on the swaying of the tower. Otherwise, Kaji had other things on his mind.
In spite of the height, the wind, the cold, and the technical problem posed by such a rescue, Kaji said, "When I was up there, my concern was for the patient."
Only afterward did it occur to him how he might illustrate the moment.