Bridge inspectors saved thanks to skill and quick reaction of tug crew

On the morning of April 20, three bridge inspectors were sent on a horrifying 20- to 30-foot free fall when the arm of the crane from which they were suspended collapsed. Caught up by their harnesses moments before hitting the icy water of the Mississippi, the three inspectors were left dangling only a few feet above the surface.

The crew of a passing pushboat saw what had happened and quickly put out a call for help. The Canton Marine boat was taking a barge downriver when its crew spotted the three bridge inspectors suspended below the Quincy Memorial Bridge in Quincy, Ill. Too far down river to help, the boat crew radioed back upriver to another Canton Marine vessel, Sir-Ene. Her captain Tony Bichsel and deck hand Josh Johnson were tied up at the Archer Daniels Midland terminal when they received the call that sprung them into action.

“Got a call from another tug saying that it looked like they needed some help,” said Bichsel. “So we left the barge we were hooked onto and went to see if they needed our help.”

As Bichsel and Johnson made their way down to the bridge, they received a call from Keith Frank, the Quincy assistant fire chief, requesting their assistance.

“When I called them hoping they might be able to help, they had already talked to another tug and were on their way downriver,” Bichsel told Professional Mariner.

Battling high winds that pushed the pushboat away from the bridge and a current strengthened by spring rain and melting, Bichsel did his best to position Sir-Ene, a 55-foot pushboat, under the dangling inspectors.

The bridge inspection crew had been in the crane’s bucket examining the underside of the bridge when the pin holding the control arm of their crane failed and the arm collapsed. The inspectors were thrown from the bucket and fell towards the water until their safety harnesses caught and left them dangling from the bucket at three different heights. The varying heights above the water of the inspectors added yet another challenge to an already difficult situation faced by Bichsel as he maneuvered the tug.

While Bichsel held the tug in place under the bridge, Johnson was able to secure the three victims. He first helped them over the hand rail and then gingerly unhooked their harnesses before the current could move the boat and pull them overboard.

After all three workers were on board, Bichsel brought Sir-Ene over to a platform beside the bridge. Rescue workers were standing by to get the three workers into a rescue basket and onto shore.

Once on shore the inspectors were taken to the hospital to be treated and were released later that day. Aside from being exhausted and incurring a few bumps and bruises, no major injuries were reported.

The entire rescue took roughly an hour to complete. This was the result of the fast response by Sir-Ene. Frank told Professional Mariner that the fire department was prepared to make a rescue, but it would have taken them longer and the effort would have been more complicated.

The boat that the fire department uses for river rescues was still in storage from the winter and it would have taken time to get the boat out of storage and down to the bridge. The single deck of the boat would have required rescue workers to be lowered from the bridge in order to get at the victims. They then would have had to clip the victims into a harness and lower them into the waiting boat.

Since the bridge inspectors were exhausted after only 10 minutes of hanging from their harnesses, speed was critical. Given the circumstances, Sir-Ene was the fastest and least risky option.

Speaking with Professional Mariner after the incident, Bichsel was glad everything had worked out. The fire department could have performed the rescue, he said, but “we were handier and what we did worked just as well as what they would have done.”

He added that the lack of serious injuries was critical to the success of their rescue. “If they had been hurt, then that would have never have happened,” he said of the pushboat rescue.

Quick action and cooperation between the boat crew and fire department were crucial, according to Frank.

Noting the quick response and skill of Sir-Ene’s crew, Frank said, “I can tell you the wind was blowing tremendously and the current was going really fast. They did everything right. Those guys are fabulous about supporting us.” •

Ben Motley

By Professional Mariner Staff