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Man visiting Freeland survives 20-foot fall at Fort Casey

A 67-year-old Michigan man is recovering from multiple injuries at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after falling more than 20 feet from a wall at Fort Casey State Park near Coupeville.

“All my grandchildren were there,” Charles Hennighausen said Monday from his hospital room about his fall this past week. “It was very traumatic for them to see their grandfather go over the edge.”

Hennighausen, of the Detroit area, was on a sightseeing excursion with relatives attending a family reunion in Freeland when he tumbled off a berm of the historic fortification onto a concrete surface below.

The fall occurred about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 16 as Hennighausen was walking with his granddaughter Katya, 4, and other family members across the structure near the gun emplacements.

The concrete and earthen berm, called Battery Kingsbury, features a grassy dirt bank on the Admiralty Bay side, and a sheer concrete wall more than 20 feet tall on the parking-lot side, with a concrete base below.

It’s one of the highest sections of the fort, and one of the farthest points south in the historic installation.

Hennighausen said the top of the berm offers a wide walkway, but the concrete is beveled several inches on the parking-lot side. Both the flat and beveled portions are the same color, making the change in angle difficult to spot, he said.

There is no guardrail or other indication of potential danger in the area from which he fell, he added.

“I thought I was safe,” Hennighausen said. “I put my foot down where

I thought the concrete should be, and there was nothing there. I lost my balance and went over.”

He said he remembers thinking only about his back during the fall, recently recovered from surgery a year ago.

“I saw the ground coming up,” Hennighausen said. “I thought that was that, I’m going to wreck my back.”

He said he doesn’t remember blacking out, but that other people there said he was unresponsive to emergency medical care in the first few seconds.

His daughter, Helena Schiavone of Freeland, was hosting the family reunion attended by relatives from across the U.S. and as far away as England.

Schiavone was along on the Fort Casey visit. Family members called 911 when they realized Hennighausen had fallen from the wall, she said. Help arrived within minutes.

“None of us saw what happened,” she said Monday of the adults in the party. “The doctors said he was very lucky. They said the fall would have killed most people.”

Schiavone said that the way her father landed, on his feet, hands and elbows in succession, probably saved his life.

“If he had fallen directly on his back, he’d probably be dead,” she said.

Emergency crews rushed Hennighausen to Whidbey General Hospital in Coupeville. From there, he was airlifted to Harborview, where he underwent two surgeries.

Hennighausen suffered three cracked ribs, a shattered kneecap, dislocated toes, internal bleeding, a concussion and multiple cuts and bruises, one requiring 17 stitches in his forehead, Schiavone said.

“Amazingly, I’m having no trouble with my back,” her father said.

Tolina Hennighausen, who has been at her husband’s side at the hospital since he was admitted, was with him at Fort Casey when he fell. She was the first person to reach him after he landed.

“He was watching our granddaughter play,” she said. “He took a step backward and fell all the way down.

“I heard my daughter scream,” she added. “It was very traumatic for the children.”

The fort was built in the 1890s as part of a defensive network to guard against invasion by sea. Made obsolete almost as soon as it was completed by the invention of the airplane, the fort eventually was declared inactive in 1935.

Since being turned into a state park, it has attracted thousands of visitors each year.

Brett Bayne, Fort Casey park ranger, said Tuesday that there have been two or three other falls from the same area in his 12 years at the park. He said other injuries have occurred from tripping and other missteps in the park, but none as serious as Hennighausen’s fall.

Bayne said a list of rules for using the park is posted on a bulletin board at the entrance, and that designated walking zones and several warning signs are posted throughout.

“We’re trying to keep the park accessible to the public, while trying to keep it safe,” he said. “It’s a tough balancing act.”

He said the biggest potential for injuries involves people running and playing games on the structures, such as Capture the Flag.

“The whole game-playing thing is what we want to stress,” Bayne said. “People treating it like a playground, when that’s not what it’s meant for.”

“The fort being what it is, it can be a hazardous place if you’re not careful,” he added.

Bayne said that in today’s legal climate, he can foresee changes coming, maybe even a fence.

“Liability being the way it is, at some point folks will be able to look at the fort, but won’t be able to go on it,” he predicted.

The Hennighausens say the facilities at the park should be made more safe for visitors, or at least posted with more warning signs in dangerous areas.

“It’s unacceptable,” Tolina Hennighausen said of the safety provisions relating to the structure from which her husband fell.

“You either close it, or make it safe,” she said.

Hennighausen said he’s not sure when he’ll be released from the hospital, but that each day he seems to be making progress toward recovery.

“Right now, I want to get up and get going as soon as I can,” he said, “then we’ll see what we can do about trying to correct the situation over at that park.”

“All I want is to get it so that others don’t have to go through what I’ve gone through,” he said, adding:

“I’m not going up around that place again.”

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