Paint-removal job in water tower leaves man hanging for six ho

Saturday, August 14, 2004

After being stuck about 75 feet high inside a water tower for almost six hours Friday, there were two things on Mike Higgins' mind when he got his feet on the ground: a cigarette and a bathroom.

Otherwise, the St. Louis water tower painter downplayed his Friday the 13th escapade, which included a lengthy extrication by the Cape Girardeau Fire Department.

He came out of an access hole at the base of the 110-foot tower wearing a smile on his face and a backward, faded patriotic hat on his head. He followed his escorts to a nearby ambulance, where he sat on the bumper and assured emergency medical personnel that he was fine.

He granted a quick television interview, then proceeded quickly across the street to a gas station.

He came back out with a lit cigarette between his fingers.

"I ran out of cigarettes three hours ago," he said.

Higgins and a co-worker were in the process of removing lead paint from the inside of Gordonville's water tower at the intersection of Highway 25 and Route Z. Higgins, using a motorized winch and pulley system, ascended inside the 6-foot-diameter tower at about 7:30 a.m. Around 45 minutes later, he realized that the motor that powered his winch stopped working and he couldn't lower himself. The two men tried to get the winch working again, but finally gave up and called their boss, who from St. Louis relayed an emergency call to Cape Girardeau.

Higgins hung from the end of his rope, which included a seat much like a tractor's, and waited for help. He said he never felt in danger.

"I knew I wasn't going anywhere," he said.

Higgins said he fell asleep at one point during the ordeal.

Gordonville volunteer firefighter Collin McClanahan climbed to the top on an external ladder to keep Higgins company, while personnel from Cape Girardeau's fire department, with assistance from Jackson and Gordonville, planned and carried out the rescue.

Cape Girardeau firefighters Brad Dillow and Larry Galloway were particularly instrumental in Higgins' rescue. Dillow ascended the tower from the outside and then lowered himself down the tower to assess the situation. Galloway, using climbing gear, worked his way up the inside of the tower, secured Higgins to his safety harness and rappelled down again.

The opening at the top of the tower is only 24 inches wide and not big enough for a rescue, so firefighters opted to lower Higgins down inside the tower, where he could crawl through an access hole at the bottom.

"Everybody working together is what it took," Galloway said. "Everything went very well. It just took some time."

Galloway said the rescue could have been done more quickly had Higgins been injured or in more serious danger. As it was, firefighters took their time and made sure the rescue was carried out the safest way for Higgins and the rescuers involved.

bmiller@semissourian.com

243-6635

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