Having painted flagpoles for more than a half-century, Warren Hinrichs was only a little worried about the heat Monday as he prepared to climb the pole atop the federal courthouse in downtown Yakima.
With temperatures forecast to rise above 100, he got permission to bring his dog, Stitch, up to the roof rather than leave the dog in his truck. He even left Stitch a bowl of water.
But the 73-year-old Hinrichs was so focused on getting his job done — replacing pulleys and stringing two new ropes on the pole — that he neglected to bring water for himself. And he kept working after his hat fell off, ignoring the midday sun beating down on his head.
Firefighters later estimated that heat reflected from the rooftop raised temperatures at the flagpole to more than 107 degrees.
Halfway through the work, Hinrichs was feeling light-headed and asked Robert Perez, the building’s maintenance supervisor with whom he was working, to pass some water up to him.
“He’s sending the bottle up to me ... that’s the last thing I remember,” Hinrichs said in a phone interview Tuesday morning from his home in Spokane.
“I found myself upside-down in my chair. I tried to right myself because all the blood was going to my head, but I couldn’t so I just wrapped my leg around the pole and held on tight (to the ropes).”
Perez called 911 and scores of motorists and pedestrians gathered to watch the rescue operation taking place 75 feet above the street as firefighters climbed up from a ladder truck.
Hinrichs, who was treated for dehydration at a local hospital and released a short time later, said it was the first time in almost 56 years of working on flagpoles, water towers and other high-flying paint jobs that he’s ever needed rescuing.
“I was up half the night thinking about the firefighters, the people at the hospital and Robert — he’s one of my guardian angels,” Hinrichs said.
He’s also thankful for the women at the William O. Douglas Federal Building who took care of his dog and that the city didn’t ticket him for leaving his truck on the street all day.
But the incident isn’t changing his mind about retiring, Hinrichs said, even though he’s now the same age his father was when he climbed his last flagpole.
Hinrichs, who said it was a foregone conclusion that he’d join his father’s crew of climbing painters when he graduated from Aberdeen High School in 1959, was 8 years old when he scaled his first water tower.
“We didn’t have safety belts in those days. He was climbing behind me with one arm on either side, saying, ‘You’re doing great, you’re doing great,’” Hinrichs recalled. “As kids, we’d practice rope rigging the bosun chair in the garage rafters.”
The father-son team worked safely for years, except for one accident in 1973. His father, Bill Hinrichs, was electrocuted when the chain rigging he was holding struck power lines running to the pumphouse for the Yelm water tower they were painting.
“I was up on the tower, and when I looked down, everything was just sparks everywhere and Dad was in the middle of it,” Hinrichs said. “He dropped the chain and fell to the ground and I thought he was dead. But then he just said, ‘I’m alright.’”
The doctors said he survived because he was right-handed. If he’d had the chain in his left hand, the current would have hit his heart and killed him, Hinrichs said.
His father always liked getting newspaper write-ups and photographs, so Hinrichs thought he would probably be entertained by all the attention Monday’s rescue attracted.
The passion for a well-painted flagpole is so important to Hinrichs’ family that the morning of his father’s funeral, his brother painted the cemetery’s flagpole.
Now, Hinrichs’ sons work with him on occasion. They stepped in to help him keep customers in 2008 while Hinrichs recovered from surgery and they continue to come with him on trips. Every summer, he does a big tour across the West, painting flagpoles. He typically revisits the same customers every three years.
Hinrichs said he’s painted more than 5,000 flagpoles across the West, including one atop the 11-story Larson Building in Yakima.
He takes his responsibility for the poles seriously. That’s why he agreed to make the repairs at the federal courthouse Monday on short notice. He did the paint job on the federal building’s pole last year.
“I really love what I’m doing. People appreciate me, and I’m good at it,” Hinrichs said. “That’s what keeps me going.”
It’ll be a little while before Hinrichs gets out on another job, however. He said firefighters collected his chair and rigging as evidence and that he might face a state Department of Labor and Industries citation for not meeting proper safety standards.
For now, he’s thankful for the rescue and pleased to see that a flag is flying over the William O. Douglas Federal Building again. While he was in the hospital, Perez strung up a flag on the new rope, Hinrichs said.
After he was released, Perez took him to get hamburgers, which they ate in the shade of the building, admiring the flag.