Woman leaps from bridge, rescued from icy Allegheny River

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One minute after noon yesterday, a group of Pittsburgh firefighters were in their truck driving across the Andy Warhol Bridge to their North Side station when they spotted a woman poised to jump off the Rachel Carson Bridge.

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Rescue personnel struggle to lift a woman into a Stokes basket as they pull her from the Allegheny River into their boat yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.

Firefighter Sheldon Henry was the first to spot the woman and he told Capt. Ron Bartolowits, who immediately contacted the city's emergency operations dispatch center in Point Breeze.

The Engine Co. 32 truck turned right on Isabella Street, then right again onto the Carson Bridge -- the former Ninth Street Bridge -- and pulled up next to where the woman stood on the outside of the bridge railing.

She glanced at the firefighters and at another woman walking across the bridge, then without a word, jumped into the ice-covered Allegheny River.

"I never thought she'd jump," Capt. Bartolowits said later, during an interview at the Deutschtown Fire Station on Spring Garden Avenue. "I fully expected her to climb back over [the railing]."

The firefighters called the city's River Rescue squad, headquartered two bridges down the Allegheny on the north side of the Clemente Bridge, outside PNC Park.

When Capt. Bartolowits and the other firefighters saw the woman jump, they left their truck, looked over the railing of the bridge, and saw her wedged in the ice on the river.

"We called down to her and she was halfway through the ice and she was moving, so we knew she was alive," Capt. Bartolowits said.

The woman's legs were submerged and the top half of her body was above the ice as she balanced herself on her arms and upper torso near a pier about 80 feet from the south side of the river.

After the firefighters on the Carson Bridge threw a life vest on a rope to the woman, they were joined by members of two other companies, Engine Co. 37 from Manchester and Engine Co. 3 from the Strip District, who were stationed along the closed 10th Street Bypass.

The emergency workers yelled to the woman to grab the life vest so they could drag the rope along the bridge and pull her to safety along the shore. But she was unable or unwilling to do so.

After several minutes, the woman began to yell back.

"She actually looked up and yelled for help, so we knew she wanted to live," Capt. Bartolowits said.

About 12:20 p.m., a boat pulled away from the River Rescue office down the Allegheny River. The Husky Nattiq Airboat, a rescue vehicle the city bought late last year, moved sluggishly through the partially frozen river, then swept along rapidly atop the ice, before it again moved slowly through the icy water.

The ride from River Rescue to the bridge was treacherous, said Tony Weinmann, one of two city paramedics and divers aboard the boat.

"The conditions out there were bad," he said.

The pilot, city police Officer Marty Link, pulled the boat past the woman and then slowly maneuvered it alongside her so rescue workers could reach her. Mr. Weinmann and Mike Abbitt, the second city paramedic, lowered a device called a Stokes basket onto the ice.

The toughest obstacle was dislodging the woman from the ice, Mr. Weinmann said. Once that occurred, the ice worked in favor of the rescue workers because they were able to slide the woman across the ice, place her in the basket and get her into the boat, he said.

The return trip to the River Rescue headquarters took a couple of minutes. Rescuers said the woman was alert and her vital signs were stable before she was moved from the boat into a waiting ambulance. The woman's blond hair was matted with dried blood as she lay on the stretcher at about 12:35 p.m.

The woman, who carried no identification and declined to provide any identifying information to police, was taken to Allegheny General Hospital, with broken legs, a broken arm and head injuries. Her condition was not available last night.

"We got there in time, so hopefully, she'll survive," Mr. Weinmann said.

Yesterday's incident was the first time Capt. Bartolowits, 47, of Spring Hill, had to deal with a bridge jumper. The quick action from his crew in alerting fellow rescue workers drew praise from his boss.

"For the situation we were left in, our guys did a pretty good job," Battalion Chief Michael Marks said.

Mike Bucsko can be reached at mbucsko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1732.


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