Jim Doyle has written a great profile of Jim Phelan, one of the few steeplejacks in the Bay Area, in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. Phelan’s company also has its own web site: uphigh.com. I particularly enjoyed this beautiful photograph of Phelan atop the Campanile at the University of California, Berkeley.
A week after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, he was asked to take down the bent flagpole at the Ferry Building. The world press had focused on the flagpole as a symbol of a distressed city. It was time to remove it.
Standing on top of the Ferry Building dome, he had a “tube cutter” to sever the bottom of the pole. A twin-bladed Chinook helicopter hovered overhead, a cable from it attached to the pole. And it was pitching in high winds and causing a severe downwash that shook the building.
Phelan was secured by a nylon safety line. But gusty winds were pulling his goggles off his face. Seconds after he cut the flagpole, the chopper began moving, pushing the pole against him. He made a split-second decision to push the flagpole away, an instinctive reaction that may have prevented serious injury. Soon after, the pole got hung up on an antenna. The helicopter cut the cable and the pole dropped to the ground.