When the captain of a Chicago Water Taxi headed for Chinatown from downtown this morning saw a small wave near a riverwall, she did a double-take.
“I said, ‘Is that a person in the water?’” said Ragna Russo, captain of the Sunliner, which was on its usual 11:20 a.m. run from Madison Street to Chinatown when she spotted what turned out to be a woman submerged up to her neck in water.
“She was hanging onto this piece of exposed ribar (in the riverwall,) for dear life,” next to the concrete riverwall south of the Roosevelt Road bridge, Russo said.
Russo called out “man overboard,” and started to steer toward the west bank of the river, where the woman was struggling to stay above water.
The boat’s deckhand, David Blackford, had been collecting tickets from the 15 passengers on the boat, but as Russo steered the boat’s stern toward the riverwall, he readied a life preserver with a 100-foot line attached, Russo said. Russo called authorities and Fire Department rescue crews were dispatched, and she spoke to the Police Marine Unit.
When the boat was in position, the deckhand, Blackford, threw the life preserver to the woman, but she was too frightened of becoming submerged in the water to grab ahold of it, Russo said.
“She wouldn’t let go of it,” Russo said.
Firefighters showed up on shore, and Blackford was able to throw the preserver to one of them, who then threw it down to the woman, Russo said.
Blackford was able to get the woman close to the boat, but he and a firefighter who had boarded the boat were unable to get her out on their own, Russo said. Russo called for a volunteer, and one of the passengers helped get the woman to a ladder on the boat’s side and out of the water.
Once the woman was on the boat, Russo brought her to River City, a condominium complex at 800 S. Wells St. that has a dock, where a Fire Department ambulance waited to take her to Northwestern University Medical Center.
Russo and a Fire Department spokesman said the woman was taking a smoke break along the river when she fell in. A crumbling section of riverwall concrete apparently gave way under the woman’s weight, sending her into the water, Russo said.
The woman was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in good-to-fair condition, Fire department spokesman Richard Rosado said. The Chicago Police Marine Unit and the U.S. Coast Guard also responded, but Blackford, the passenger and the firefighters had rescued the woman by the time they arrived on-scene, Russo said.
Russo, who has been a Chicago River captain for 12 years, said she’s thankful that both she and Blackford had trained for water rescues. They are on the lookout for passengers falling overboard, not for suddenly coming upon someone struggling to stay above water, Russo said.
“If it hadn’t been for the consistent, regular training, we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Russo said. Blackford “was just wonderful.”
It also seemed providential that the Sunliner was on the river at the time the woman fell in, Russo said. The boat makes runs from Michigan Avenue to Madison Street and then down to Chinatown daily--and often sees few other boats on the river when it's running, Russo said.
"If it weren't for the Sunliner, I don't know if anyone would have seen her," Russo said.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times