FIRE chiefs faced agonising decisions as they battled to save the man stranded at the top of Carlisle’s Dixon’s Chimney.

For most of Monday, north Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service station manager Stuart Hook led the operation to retrieve the man. A veteran firefighter, whose career spans 22 years, he found himself managing an operation of unprecedented complexity.

He was called to the scene at 2.40am.

During his career, Mr Hook has been involved in many challenging situations, from building fires to horrific high-speed car crashes, but nothing could have fully prepared him for the incident on Shaddongate.

In freezing conditions, almost 300ft above the ground, the man had toppled over the chimney’s edge, his left leg becoming trapped between brickwork and the metal ladder.

Upside down, and in a precarious position, he was clearly still alive.

His would-be rescuers were in a race against time, desperate to reach him but conscious the risk they took on should not be unacceptably high.

“Our best bit of kit in Cumbria, which is as good as in most fire services, reaches a height of 30m; but the chimney is 83m tall,” said Mr Hook. “We knew we were a long way off from being able to get anywhere near him.”

Firefighters used the service’s aerial ladder platform to get as near as they could to the man, yelling to him that they were working on a rescue plan.

“He was conscious, but not in a position to have a conversation,” said Mr Hook.

The first problem was the ladder the man hung from: it was clearly unstable.

“It was absolutely clear we couldn’t use it because it wasn’t secure,” explained Mr Hook. “The whole top section of the ladder was not fully fixed in place.”

Any attempt to use it would have wrenched it from the wall, toppling the man. Mr Hook said: “Whether you are fixed to a ladder or not, someone hitting you from that height will kill you.

“Everybody was frustrated because there was just no way we could get to him safely. It was a unique and unusual incident: we had somebody who needed help and we just couldn’t get to him.”

Having ruled out using the ladder, those involved considered other options.

The back-up plan was a huge 150m crane from Manchester, but it would take up to six hours to set up. A quicker option was winching the man into a helicopter from above, said Mr Hook.

A Coastguard helicopter reached the scene as the sun rose.

It joined an impressive 50-strong team of rescue workers, including Penrith Mountain Rescue Team, and specialist high-altitude fire service rope rescue experts from Lancashire.

Police meanwhile had sealed off the streets around the chimney as onlookers and press gathered to watch. Between 7.45am, and 8am, the Coastguardhelicopter crew three times tried to reach the man. It was soon clear the helicopter’s ferocious downdraft - blasting air at 100mph - would dislodge the stranded man.

“The crew said - with 100 per cent certainty - he’d fall if they tried to get him,” said Mr Hook. “It was devastating, because as the incident commander I knew it was this man’s best chance of survival.”

The final option was a 90m cherry picker brought from Glasgow - though its reach was still 20ft short of the chimney’s top. From its basket, steeplejacks worked to attach a ladder to the chimney’s final section.

Using this, two rope rescue specialists from Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service finally clambered on top of the structure, and then lowered the man gently into the cherry picker.

“It was an extremely challenging and dangerous situation,” said Mr Hook. “Without doubt, it was the most challenging incident I have ever managed or attended as a firefighter. It was very frustrating: unfortunately, there was no way we could get this gentleman down quickly and safely.”

After confirmation the man had died, Cumbria’s Chief Fire Officer Steve Healey called Mr Hook, telling him he and his colleagues could not have done more. “It’s the kind of fire service family we are,” added Mr Hook.