Rolando Baez was doing what he'd done since he was a young boy in Cuba — he was climbing the tallest tree he could find. And compared to the towering coconut palms he'd clambered up in his native country, the squat Australian Christmas tree at the BART station at 16th and Mission was anything but a challenge.
The 34-year-old Baez has scaled trees from one side of this continent to the other. But as he ascended the tree at 4:30 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 3, Baez experienced a climbing first.
The branch snapped.
The next thing Baez knew, he was wedged tightly atop the wrought-iron fence that surrounds the BART station. Attribute it to the sudden stop of a 12-foot fall, or a buzz from the bottle he'd nipped on that morning, but Baez didn't realize the seriousness of his tumble until he tried to pull himself off the fence. A few homeless men tried to help him to no avail. The next thing Baez knew, paramedic Martha Cody-Berry was explaining to him that he was not caught between the bars as he thought. He was skewered.
Two of the fence's blunt bars had pierced the back of Baez's upper thighs and punched through his groin. Had he landed an inch either way, the spikes would have struck a femoral artery, the main blood line to the leg, and he would have instantly bled to death.
Baez, a homeless man and itinerant, has been shot in the back six times. He's taken another bullet in the neck. He's been stabbed eight times and boasts the long, tissuey scars to prove it. He has known pain, but nothing like the pain of a one-in-a-million accident like this.
“When we got the call, we just thought that they were bullshitting us,” says Cody-Berry, who was the first paramedic on the scene. “I mean come on, they say a man is at 16th and Mission and he's impaled himself on a fence. I've seen a lot of things in my 10 years as a paramedic, but I'd never heard of anything like that.”
When Cody-Berry got to the corner of the fence next to the Wells-Fargo Bank, she and her partner, Susan Cody-Berry (who is also her life partner), thought the man slumped over the bars was dead. There was blood everywhere, and they couldn't raise a radial pulse, which is located on the lower forearm near the wrist. Then, as the two paramedics cut away his clothing to get a better look at the injuries, Baez stirred. Immediately, they gave him a saline IV to replace blood and started checking for vital signs. Another team of paramedics, Russ Zimmerman and Mike Rambo, rolled in to the scene, hooked up more saline IVs, fitted Baez with a cervical collar to stabilize his neck, and began administering oxygen.
Martha Cody-Berry propped herself up on the fence to pump saline and settle Baez, who would wake every few minutes and struggle; he only vaguely remembers the scene since he tried to sleep to escape the pain.
Baez says he knew the assembled paramedics, police officers, and firefighters on the scene were there to free him, but at one point he was unsure he wanted them to succeed.
” 'Shoot me in the head,' I said, 'Why do you want to see a man suffer like this?' “
Cody-Berry answered his demands with assurances that they would release him from the fence if he just relaxed. But since fence impalings aren't part of rescue fundamentals, the firefighters and paramedics were stumped.
“Fire wanted to yank him off the fence,” says Cody-Berry. The paramedic teams warned that, like any stabbing, removing the bars could cause more tissue damage and blood loss. San Francisco Fire Department Battalion Chief Hank Smith led the joint decision to haul both Baez and the fence to San Francisco General Hospital.
The firefighters revved up their K-12 all-purpose saw and started on the bars, but according to Cody-Berry, the fence chewed off the metal blade and spat out the teeth. Smith, who has been with the department for 30 years, knew the metal saw was useless.
“The vibrations in human flesh would be excruciating,” he says. “And the bars were thick, about an inch and a half by 3 inches. We had to do something; we couldn't just leave him up there.”
Smith remembered a similar rescue in New York where a man had been impaled, and he moved to imitate that success: He ordered the firefighters to spark a gas torch.
The bars weren't melting, but as luck would have it, a welder with Muni happened to be on his way to work. The welder told the emergency team that their torch would not suffice but that he had the right equipment.
The welder's torch sliced the bars in seconds, and six firefighters and the four paramedics lifted the 3-by-5-foot section to the ground and then worked Baez onto a backboard on top of a gurney, placing a large trauma bag under the removed fence to keep it level.
Upon arriving at General Hospital, Baez was still conscious according to his surgeon, Dr. Stan Rogers.
“It was odd in that there was a fence connected to him,” says Rogers, “but it was like removing any other object.”
Rogers attained control of the arteries to keep blood loss under control if the 12-inch spears hit the femorals. Then the surgical team administered antibiotics and sterilized the area. Finally, they extended the incisions on both legs, mostly vertically, to extract the spikes. The surgeon fitted Baez with a number of staples because he had lost tissue, and added stitches up and down each thigh. (Baez counts seven major tied-up incisions on his legs and groin, plus a pair of holes in his legs.)
“He was very close to gouging major structures,” says Rogers. “But he is doing very well, and we are glad to see he is not infected. He is very lucky.”
Baez spent the next five days in the hospital. He was lucid the day after the accident when Cody-Berry visited, and he greeted her.
“He looked at me from the bed and said, 'You were the person that was sitting up on the fence with me.' And then he said thank you and then he took my hand and kissed it. He said something about how he wanted to do drawings for us,” she says. Cody-Berry dropped off Xerox paper and her phone number that night.
Baez called her a few days later from the room S.F. General rented for him at the All-Star hotel at 16th Street and Folsom for one week. He told her the drawings were finished; Cody-Berry hasn't seen him since.
Moving gingerly with the aid of a wooden cane, Baez winces as he relates his lifelong relationship with trees. When he was 5 years old, his grandmother tied him in a tree for three days in part of a Cuban Indian ritual he still doesn't understand. Then there were the trees he climbed through childhood. Later, he studied to be a fertilizer expert in college “to work with the trees.”
Baez denies the Examiner and the Chronicle news accounts that he was sleeping in the tree when he had his accident.
“It wasn't about being stupid,” he says. “I like climbing trees. I was just watching the people, and the branch broke.”
Baez — whose street name is Indio — has become somewhat of a local celebrity since the accident. The entire community of junkies and whores knows him, and many approach him one recent afternoon at a nearby vacant corner bearing small gifts: a dollar or two here, a small bag of junk, a bite to eat. Most want to know how he's feeling. Some heard he'd died, and just want to say hello. Fewer offer a place to sleep. (He makes do with a dilapidated brown hatchback parked on the corner of 17th and Mission and an occasional stay in a $20 room.) To most he returns a slight smile and an almost bashful “thank you.” To others he gives half of what is given to him, forwarding half a sandwich to a stumbling man who complains of terrible hunger.
Baez says he used to shoot heroin with these people until he quit nine months ago in hopes of impressing a woman named Maria who works at a nearby coffee shop. Then he discovered Maria was married, and started drinking to stave off the depression. In the Mission, where heroin can be easier to score than food, he's worried he'll get back on junk to ease the pain he feels from the accident.
“They give me Tylenol 3,” Baez says of the doctors. “When I was using drugs, I would take five of these for one headache. Now they give me one for every four hours.”
Baez says he's been trading the gift bags of heroin for pain pills on the street, mostly codeine and Valium. His biggest worry is to find a place to stay so he can get well.
“I'm not worried about where to sleep; I can sleep anywhere. I need a place to shower, to keep my bandages clean, to not get infected. I need a place to sit down to rest. There is nowhere to sit down around here, every place to sit has bars on it,” he says.
The problem is money, Baez says. As a homeless man without the resident papers he received when he got to the States in 1980, he's lived off of day-labor jobs and selling drugs for the last 15 years. Now, without the strength of two good legs, Baez is unsure of what he will do for cash. He says he'll try to use his talent as an artist to sell some of his scratchy, detailed pen-and-ink drawings. He'll also try to avoid moving drugs.
“I thought about it, but it's not in my heart,” he says.
Baez wants to get better, and better after that. He says the whole experience will make him wiser, but it cannot keep him out of the trees; that's in his blood.
“As soon as I get better, I'm up in the trees,” he says. “But I want to be prepared if the branch breaks; I want to be held by something.