With jackhammer, drill, saw and sledgehammer, firefighters rescue cat from pipe

Victoria firefighters jackhammered, sledgehammered, clawed and cut their way into a basement drain pipe to rescue a cat named Willow that had wedged herself into the four-inch metal tube.

And the cat came back — to full form — the very next day.

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“Within 24 hours, it was like nothing had happened,” said owner Emma Hutchinson of James Bay, who adopted Willow and her sister Alder nine months ago.

Hutchinson said “there aren’t adequate words” to describe how grateful she is to the Victoria Fire Department for saving Willow. “They are heroes. They saved my cat.”

Deputy Fire Chief Dan Atkinson said he’s never seen another rescue like it in his 20-year career. “We used sledgehammers, jackhammers, hammer drills, angle grinder, Sawzall, shovels — you name it, we pretty much pulled it into play,” said Atkinson. “We even used a telescopic camera to go down the pipe to see if we could locate the cat’s exact whereabouts.”

Hutchinson was in her kitchen early Tuesday morning having coffee when she noted that while Alder and dog Jarrah were at her feet, Willow was nowhere in sight. The last time she had seen the cat was at about 10 the previous night.

A casual poke around the house turned into a frantic search when she failed to find Willow. “I looked everywhere, everywhere for her.”

In the basement, Hutchinson spotted a white cap on the floor that had been loosely covering the drain pipe, but quickly dismissed the idea that the cat could be down the pipe. The cat weighs five pounds and is almost two feet long, while the pipe is about four inches in diameter.

But when Hutchinson shoved a flexible plumbing inspection camera down the curved pipe, she saw a furball.

Almost certain that the cat was a goner, Hutchinson called plumbing services but got only voice mail. As it was 4:30 a.m. and time was of the essence, she called in the fire brigade.

Hutchinson asked the firefighters to do “anything” they could to rescue the cat.

“I didn’t care what they had to do to get her out.”

The fire crew — Acting Capt. Tim Hanley, Elliott Buchanan, Steve Ellis and Kory Kowalyk — made a plan.

They expected the concrete floor to be up to two inches thick. It turned out to be more than six.

“I wish I could say it was very scientific and that we used all sorts of fancy training and everything else, but to be honest with you, a lot of it was just educated guesswork,” said Atkinson.

It didn’t hurt that Hutchinson had all manner of tools and equipment.

The firefighters had a sledgehammer, but Hutchinson had a proper 30-pound jackhammer, hammer drill, a reciprocating saw and more. She said she likes to maintain and repair what she can around the house herself, learning how to do it from YouTube.

“It’s pretty unusual for a homeowner,” said Hanley. The thick foundation and tight space required the firefighters to grind and “chip away” and then shovel and haul away dirt once the hole they created was large enough.

When they had dug about two feet deep, the interior weeping tile pipe was sitting in water.

“I honestly thought there was no way [the cat] could survive,” said Hutchinson. “It was a very tense waiting period.”

Once firefighters drilled a hole in the pipe, “we could hear the cat crying — it had been totally quiet up until then,” Hanley said. That gave them even more motivation.

Firefighters hoped to free the cat after the first cut into the pipe, but the cat moved, requiring several more cuts. One time, the blade came up with fur on it, causing momentary panic that they had injured the feline.

When the final cut in the pipe was made, “I actually thought the cat was going to run right out of there, but the pipe was so tight and the cat was like a full-size cat,” Hanley said.

“It’s nine months old, and I’m not a cat guy, so I don’t know how big they are, but it was like a full-length cat.” It was stuck.

The firefighters shook the wedged cat out of the pipe and out she fell — wet, cold and muddy. Hutchinson “was overcome with joy,” said Hanley. “She was crying and laughing. She was pretty ecstatic, so we’re all pretty happy we were able to help.”

Willow was taken to Central Vet Hospital, where she was rehydrated, warmed and given antibiotics. It’s believed a slight abrasion on her leg came from a sharp edge in a joint in the pipe, but it’s healing well.

Hanley can’t imagine what caused Willow to enter the pipe — he speculates she might have been chasing a rat — but he said she would have had to really nose down into the pipe and struggle and stretch herself thin to get so far.

Atkinson said it was a gruelling rescue over about two and a half hours that extended the firefighters’ shift, but “true to form, they just said they were happy to do it, it’s their job.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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