BREWER, Maine — A Bangor firefighter wearing a cold-water survival suit and rescuers in an inflatable boat saved an 18-year old Holden man who had jumped from Interstate 395’s Veterans Remembrance Bridge and fallen at least 50 feet into the icy Penobscot River on Wednesday.
The young man, whom authorities declined to identify, was deeply fortunate to survive the fall and grasp a bridge pylon at mid-river long enough for the scrambling rescuers to save him, said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.
The man was conscious and speaking in the water and as firefighters carried him up a steep embankment and placed him in a Brewer ambulance. He was transported to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, and he is expected to survive, McCausland said.
“It’s very cold out there today with the wind blowing, the water temperature very cold, and the ice flowing downriver,” Bangor Fire Chief Thomas E. Higgins said in a joint Bangor-Brewer press conference after the incident. “This was a very serious situation for this person and we knew time was of the essence.”
Higgins and Brewer Public Safety Director Jason Moffitt praised Bangor and Brewer police and firefighters, Maine game wardens, marine patrol officers, state police and a helicopter — possibly from the Maine Forest Service — who rushed to the bridge after state police Sgt. Bernard Brunette reported the man’s jump at about 1:35 p.m.
A member of the state police commercial vehicle enforcement unit, Brunette was literally driving by the man’s car thinking it had stalled on the bridge when he saw the man jump. Brunette immediately radioed for help, McCausland said. Other passing motorists called 911.
Rescuers found the man and were in the water by 2 p.m. and had him ashore by 2:12 p.m. — a fast response, Higgins said, given the time it took for them to get to the scene, find the man, suit up, rig a safety line and get through the ice and snow along the shoreline. Several police atop the bridge shouted and pointed down to the man in the water as he hung onto the pylon.
Firefighters were considering swimming the man back through the river when the rescue boat arrived. Speaking immediately after the incident, Higgins and Moffitt said they weren’t sure of the name of the on-duty Bangor firefighter in the survival suit or which department’s rescue boat carried the victim and his rescuers to shore.
At least two other craft were en route, Higgins said.
“This was a very difficult rescue, a very dangerous rescue,” Moffitt said. “These guys did a tremendous job. They responded very, very quickly and this individual is very lucky to have made it to this point.”
Good communication between dispatchers and both cities’ police and fire departments, Higgins said, is critical to saving time and lives. Responders often battle conflicting location reports and need to determine the best place to get into the river and get to victims quickly. The fact that this incident occurred at low tide and that rescuers entered from the Brewer side of the river, over a large mudflat, made a significant difference in this case. Less helpful were the strong winds, driving snow and bitter cold weather.
Moffitt said the quick response and rescue times were “amazing for this time of year, with the lack of access to the river” caused by snow and ice.
About 40 rescuers responded, Higgins said.