Firefighter pulls two men from river one dies, other is in critical condition

August 27, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

Firefighter Joseph Wisniewski didn't have much to go on after he arrived at the Patapsco River Bridge.

Witnesses told his emergency response unit that two fishermen fell into the water. They pointed to the spot where they thought the bodies hit, a vague description somewhere near the center of the span.

The 42-year-old firefighter didn't wait for a rescue boat. He didn't wait to take off his clothes. Or his shoes.

Despite near total darkness Thursday night, he waded fully clothed into the murky water and swam 100 yards, aided by spotlight from a police helicopter hovering above.

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Once in the general area, he dived 10 feet and found one of the men. Then he found the other. One man survived and is clinging to life in a hospital. The other man died Thursday night.

"Our job is to fight fires and save lives," said Firefighter Wisniewski, a 20-year veteran of the department. "I thought those people might have a shot at life if I could get them out of the water quick enough. I gave it my best shot."

Fire officials already have nominated the firefighter for a commendation.

James Murphy, who turned 47 on Wednesday and lives in the 800 block of Bethune Road in Cherry Hill, was listed in critical condition yesterday at Harbor Hospital Center. His companion and next door neighbor, Milford Slowe, 54, was pronounced dead at 10:34 p.m. at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

The incident occurred about 9:30 p.m. at the bridge, south of the Hanover Street Bridge near the Anne Arundel County line.

Firefighter Wisniewski said witnesses told him the two men had been arguing about whether to continue fishing off the bridge. "One guy wanted to stay and fish, and other guy wanted to leave," the firefighter said.

Somehow, both fell in.

Officer Sabrina V. Tapp-Harper, a police spokeswoman, said the homicide unit is investigating the incident.

The spokeswoman said Mr. Slowe's death has been ruled "questionable" pending the outcome of the investigation.

Firefighter Wisniewski said yesterday that he was surprised, but elated, that one of the men had survived. He said Mr. Murphy had no pulse and was barely breathing when he was taken to the hospital. Both victims were in full cardiac arrest when the firefighter found them in the river.

Firefighter Wisniewski, who described himself as a "pretty good swimmer" who has swum across the Chesapeake Bay, said he had to grope around the river bottom before finding one of the men.

"I grabbed the first guy by the leg," the firefighter said.

Still holding to the leg, he swam to the surface, and tied a rope around the man, who was hauled up to the bridge by other firefighters.

Firefighter Wisniewski dived again. "As soon as my hand hit the bottom, I grabbed the guy by the head." A paramedic jumped into the water and helped Firefighter Wisniewski tie a rope around the second victim's chest, enabling rescuers standing on the bridge to pull him to safety.

"You couldn't see your hand in front of your face," the firefighter said of the ordeal. "It was kind of scary. It was almost like something was guiding my hands to find the bodies. What's the odds of grabbing two bodies on two dives?"

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