YAKIMA – Having painted flagpoles for more than a half century, Warren Hinrichs was a little worried about the heat as he prepared to climb atop the federal courthouse in Yakima this week.
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.
Hinrichs gave Stitch a bowl of water, but was so focused on replacing pulleys and stringing new ropes on the courthouse flagpole that he neglected to bring water for himself. The 73-year-old kept working after his hat fell off, ignoring the midday sun beating down on his head Monday.
Halfway through his work, Hinrichs said he felt lightheaded and asked Robert Perez, the building’s maintenance supervisor, for water.
“He’s sending the bottle up to me, that’s the last thing I remember,” Hinrichs said Tuesday at 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 taking place 75 feet above the street.
Firefighters later estimated that heat reflected from the rooftop raised temperatures at the flagpole to more than 107 degrees.
Hinrichs, who was treated for dehydration at a 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.
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 said it was a foregone conclusion that he’d join his father’s crew of climbing painters when he graduated from Aberdeen (Washington) High School in 1959.
He 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.”
Now, Hinrichs’ sons work with him sometimes. They stepped in to help him in 2008 as Hinrichs recovered from surgery and continue to travel the West with him each summer.
Hinrichs said he’s painted more than 5,000 flagpoles across the West, including the one atop the Spokane County Courthouse.
“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 can take another job, however. Firefighters collected his chair and rigging as evidence and he might face a state Department of Labor and Industries citation for not meeting proper safety standards, he said.
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 burgers, which they ate in the shade of the building, admiring the flag.