‘More than a normal rescue’: First responders come to aid of man stranded on Connecticut River boat barrier

By JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writer

Published: 07-13-2023 6:15 PM

GILL — A 29-year-old man was rescued unharmed after being stranded for more than an hour on the Connecticut River’s boat barrier between Gill and Turners Falls on Wednesday evening.

According to Gill Police Chief Christopher Redmond, dispatchers received reports of a man swimming in the river at 7:23 p.m. The chief said he “immediately” drove to the former bridge abutment at the river’s edge and saw a man hanging onto the boat barrier nearly midway across.

“I think it was an attempt to swim across the river, but he got second thoughts when he got out into the river and the current became too strong,” Redmond said, noting that mental health issues may be involved.

Around a dozen emergency response agencies fought against the swift currents, a setting sun and the man’s fatigue during their rescue attempt, which lasted approximately one hour. Responding agencies, which were stationed at both the bridge abutment and at Unity Park across the river, included Gill, Montague, Erving and Bernardston Police departments; Massachusetts State Police; Gill and Turners Falls Fire departments; the Northfield Dive and Rescue Team; the Western Massachusetts Regional Technical Rescue Team; and Northfield EMS. Environmental Police and a United States Coast Guard airship from the Boston area were also called in, but did not arrive in time to contribute to the rescue.

Also contributing to the rescue was FirstLight Hydro Generating Co., which oversees the involved portion of the river and controls the Turners Falls Dam. According to Montague Police Officer Dan Miner, FirstLight immediately lowered river levels to improve ease of access for emergency personnel and widen the shoreline. Then, at around 8 p.m., FirstLight closed the dam’s gates to stop the river’s heavy flow and allow rescue craft more control, the company said. Miner noted this was likely as quickly as FirstLight could close the dam, explaining that the dam is automated by computers that need reconfiguring to make sudden adjustments.

“During high-flow events, FirstLight follows a strict set of procedures developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers entitled ‘Turners Falls Reservoir and River Flow Management Procedures,’ part of our [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] license,” FirstLight Communications Manager Claire Belanger explained. “FirstLight’s control room operator followed this prescriptive protocol when operating the gates [Wednesday evening] and will continue to do so until high flows subside.”

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According to a statement from Belanger, the Connecticut River’s flow rate was approximately 73,000 cubic feet per second at the time of the incident. Typically, the river’s flow rate during the summer is between 4,000 and 8,000 cubic feet per second.

“This was more than just a normal rescue,” Redmond said.

Before FirstLight could halt the river’s flow, first responders attempted the rescue using a Fortuna inflatable paddle boat tethered to land at Unity Park. According to Miner, using a paddle boat typically allows for more control.

In two attempts, the boat, carrying two paddlers, failed to reach the stranded man and got caught on the boat barrier dozens of feet away from its target. Redmond added that the strategy also was deemed too dangerous to persist. The boat had to be reeled in by its tethers from responders stationed at Unity Park.

According to Redmond, rescue team member William Kimball was then able to commandeer the Environmental Police boat stationed at the Gill Boat Ramp. He and a small crew navigated the boat to the stranded man right after FirstLight closed the gates and slowed the river’s flow rate. They handed him a life jacket, successfully helped him board the vessel and docked at the boat ramp.

Gill Fire Chief Gene Beaubien said the man was transported via Northfield EMS to Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield for evaluation. Aside from being “fatigued and hypothermic,” though, he was unharmed, Redmond said.

Once the stranded man was rescued, responders immediately shifted focus to helping emergency personnel positioned at the drained riverbed back to shore. The dam’s closure and the cessation of the river’s flow caused water to flood back into where it had been drained, partially submerging some crew members at a high rate of speed. Responders at Unity Park quickly helped their peers to shore with the aid of tethers.

Rescue history

Redmond, who has served on the Gill Police Department since the early 1990s, recalled just two incidents of rescues needed at the boat barrier over his career.

The first, he recalled, was in 2003 and involved a singular windsurfer or a kayaker.

The second involved a motorized rescue boat from Gill that capsized 18 years ago while trying to rescue a boater caught in the barrier. According to Miner and Ray Godin, who was fire chief at the time and participated in the rescue, the rescue crew was saved, but the situation nearly turned deadly. This made emergency responders wary of using motorized boats again for similar rescues, said Miner, who expressed he was nervous during Wednesday’s deployment of a motorized craft.

Redmond added that Wednesday’s rescue crew “certainly displayed meritorious courage.”

“Just a tremendous job by everyone involved,” he said. “It was totally a team effort.”

“The emergency personnel responding to the incident yesterday at Unity Park were truly heroic in braving extraordinarily high flows to ensure the successful rescue of the individual,” Belanger added. “We are grateful for their exhaustive efforts and are glad that the incident was resolved with the safe return of the individual and the courageous first responders to shore.”

The incident remains under investigation, according to Redmond. He said the Gill Police Department and Montague Police Department must decide which agency will take the lead on the case and whether any charges should be filed.

“The high water levels and elevated flow rates we are experiencing on the Connecticut River are gravely dangerous, and the public should not be venturing into the river until high flows subside,” Belanger advised. “As the public resumes recreation activities on the river once high flows subside, we urge vigilance and caution as events like this can result in increased debris in the water and disrupt existing public safety devices such as boat barrier buoys.”

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.

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