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Heroic rescue from tossed boat

Man hauled to safety as river roars

Kathleen Moore, Gazette Reporter, June 28th 2006 


A heroic rescue saved a Rotterdam Junction man whose yacht was swept into the Lock 9 dam and wrecked by the surging Mohawk River Wednesday.

Glenville and Rotterdam emergency personnel hauled the man to safety as the river roared underneath.

Wednesday started innocently enough for Robert E. Wade, 74, of Main Street.  He knew the Mohawk River was high, so he headed out to his dock on the south bank, where he planned to check on his 42-foot craft and move it to a more protected spot upstream.

But the water rose much faster than he expected, he said.  It was soon 6 feet higher than normal, swamping his dock and making it impossible for him to get off the boat, which was still tied up.  The water was also covering his lines, so he couldn't get the boat untied.

Then he saw a tree in the river, coming straight at him.

The current was so strong that the tree hit his dock like a battering ram, smashing it into pieces.  His boat was still moored, but the dock was no longer attached to anything.

"It was a huge tree," Wade said later.  "I couldn't get off my dock because the water was so high.  And then, bam."

Police said his boat was knocked adrift with a portion of the dock still attached.  One of his dock lines got caught in an engine, leaving him with just one engine to fight the current.  That wasn't enough.

Neighbors called 911 as he tried to turn the boat away from the dam.  Over the roar of the water, they couldn't tell him help was on the way, so they simply watched and prayed as he came closer to the manmade waterfall.

"He was trying to steer it to the shore or the lock," said neighbor Nancy Zuend, who watched from the shore.  "But it was tilting sideways and the dock was pulling him around.  It was going too fast."

Shortly after 4 p.m., he crashed into Lock 9's spillway wall, breaking at least three of the chains that link the bridge above to the dam.  By this time, Rotterdam Junction firefighters - whose station is only minutes away - had arrived, so he climbed out a window and stood on the side of the tilting boat while they threw down a harness.  Then he dangled above the water as the river smashed his boat to pieces.

"It was a little scary," he said afterward, adding, "I was trying to protect it from the high water.  I was going to try to untie it and take it up to the train bridge - and now everything's down there, the dock, everything."

As he watched the boat break up, rescuers above were struggling with two serious problems.  First, they were worried about the stability of the bridge - so worried that they moved their trucks away and handed out life preservers to the 50 emergency responders on the Route 103 bridge.  No one else was allowed to get near the structure, and it will be closed to traffic until it can be inspected, Schenectady County Fire Coordinator John Nuzback said.

The second problem was that Wade was hanging from a rope snaked through a gap in the bridge structure, too small for him to fit through.  The was no way to pull him to safety.

That's where East Glenville Fire Department Fire Chief Arnold Briscoe came in.  As a member of the Schenectady County Rope Rescue Team, it became his job to rappel down to Wade, toss him a line, and pull him to the edge of the bridge.

Over and over, Wade twisted and jerked in mid-air, trying to grab the rope.  When he finally caught it, the dozens on onlookers clapped and shouted, but Wade was still a long way from rescue.

"We just didn't have the strength to pull him to me," Briscoe said.  "I was tired - more tired than nervous.  So the team had to come up with another way."

They fastened another line on the bridge, passed it to Wade, the pulled him to Briscoe.  Both were then lifted to safety, a four-minute maneuver that had everyone on shore cheering.

Rotterdam EMS personnel wanted to make sure Wade was all right, but he didn't even have a scratch to show for his ordeal.  His first thought was for someone else entirely.

Police said he wanted to walk across the bridge to his wife, who had waited in a police car during the entire rescue.  Emergency personnel were able to get him into an ambulance only by pointing out that he couldn't walk anywhere without shoes.