A bridge, a blur … and a frigid rescue

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Covington First Responders rush to the edge of the Ohio River, where Jamie Lewis waits with the woman he rescued from its frigid waters. (Photo courtesy of Ohio River Port Security Camera Program)

Safety boat operator: ‘God had me in the right place at the right time’ 

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The Covington Fire Department recently honored Jamie Lewis of Gravelswitch, Ky., with a Citizen Lifesaver Award. Here is the story ...)
 
COVINGTON, Ky. – Jamie Lewis saw the woman jump.
 
He was sitting in a flat-bottomed boat on the Covington bank of the Ohio River, talking on the phone and watching the Roebling Suspension Bridge, when her blurred form dropped from the bridge and smacked the water below.
 
The sight – and the splash – were unnerving.
 
“It kind of freaked me out,” he said.
 
But instinct and training immediately took over. Tossing down his phone, Lewis fired up his boat and tore away from his mooring spot near the foot of Greenup Street, all the while desperately trying to spot her in the quick-moving current.
 
“She hit the water on the upstream side, but by the time she came up, she was on the other side of the bridge,” he said. “She went down again and I thought I’d lost her, but then she came up and was bobbing in the water.”
 
When he finally caught up with the woman, Lewis threw her a doughnut-shaped lifebuoy, saw her grab it, and yelled, “Whatever you do, do NOT let go!”
 
But the water was frigid. And before his eyes, her desperate grip began to weaken …
 
***
 
Lewis wasn’t on the river that day for fun. He was doing his job.
 
A resident of Gravelswitch, a little town in Marion County, Ky., about 150 miles south of Covington, Lewis works for Intech Contracting. He was stationed on the banks of the Ohio in what’s called a “safety boat,” keeping vigilance as a precaution and protection for employees from another company who were dangling over the bridge, working on its navigation lights.
 
A former volunteer firefighter who served as chief of a department in Marion County for almost eight years, Lewis has seen a lot of emergencies in his time. But in all of his years of manning a safety boat, he’s never had someone go in the water – not a worker, not anyone else.
 
“I was told (by others at the company) that nothing like this had ever happened,” he said.
 
But despite his decisive action, his rescue efforts almost failed ...
 
***
 
After the woman grabbed hold of the flotation device, Lewis said he leaned over and pulled her against the boat. Telling her to hold on, he quickly placed a 911 call to summon additional help.
 
But he quickly realized that that help wouldn’t arrive in time.
 
The water temperature the afternoon of March 17 was in the low 50s, and the bitter cold – not to mention the shock of the impact and her time under the surface – were overwhelming her.
 
“She told me, ‘I’m tired and I can’t hold on.’ She was turning blue, and I could tell she was getting exhausted, and hypothermia was setting in,” Lewis recalled.
 
Pulling someone from the water up and over the side of a boat isn’t easy in the best of circumstances. It’s even more difficult – many would say all but impossible – when that person is wearing heavy, water-logged clothes and when their limbs are immobilized by the cold and thus contributing little assistance.
 
“With only one person (lifting), it’s very hard to do,” Lewis said. “And there’s not much room to work.”
 
Nevertheless, he leaned over the gunwale, reached deep into the frigid water, got one arm hooked under one of her legs, and lifted with all his strength.
 
“It took everything I had to get her halfway on the boat and then roll her the rest of the way in,” he recalled. “I just made it happen.”
 
Tearing off his personal flotation vest, he stripped off his heavy coat and placed it over the woman.
 
“She was all curled up on her hands and knees (on the floor of the boat), trying to stay warm,” Lewis said.
 
He raced the boat to the Covington shore, where he was soon met by Covington police and ambulance personnel, who took the woman to the hospital for treatment.
 
“There is little doubt that he saved this woman’s life,” Assistant Fire Chief Greg Salmons said. “It wouldn’t have taken long for the cold water to overcome her, and she would have drowned. It was a wonderful rescue, and we want to acknowledge it.”
 
Lewis said that as the event unfolded, he didn’t have time to appreciate the drama of the moment. Over a month later, he’s still affected.
 
“I was a nervous wreck,” Lewis said. “That visual, watching someone come off that bridge like that. I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my life …”
 
***
 
The woman was eventually released from the hospital, and she in time returned to the Suspension Bridge to see the man who rescued her. The workers on the bridge pointed her to the safety boat still stationed on the Covington side, but Lewis wasn’t in the boat that day. He had moved on to the next job.
 
But his replacement passed on to him her gratitude.
 
“She did come looking for me to thank me,” Lewis said. “God had me in the right place at the right time – that’s what I’m telling people.”    
 
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