Indianapolis Fire Department divers rescued a woman who jumped off a bridge into the frigid White River on Monday morning.
When divers Scott French and Casey Sweeney arrived at the bridge at West 16th Street, several rescue attempts had been made. First responders had tried to pull the woman to shore. Fire crews had thrown her a rope, but she couldn’t reach it, Sweeney said. They also tried to get to her with a rescue boat but the boat ramp had not been cleared of snow. The woman had tried to swim to shore but ice blocked her way.
French went in, swimming underwater, his first mission simply to reach the woman and keep her conscious. She was about 40 feet from shore clinging to a slab of ice, wearing a black zip-up coat with a hood, pants and shoes.
“She said she’s going to die,” French said. “I assured her that was not going to happen.”
He said he asked her how she got in the water. She told him she jumped. He asked her why, but she stopped responding. French kept talking.
“Just small talk, more or less,” he said, “to try to keep her mind off her present condition.”
They waited for Sweeney, who swam from the other side of the river, hacking ice along the way, so the crew on shore could pull them out quickly. The ice was thin near the shore, but it got thicker — up to 6 inches — further into the river. The water temperature was estimated at 40 degrees. Sweeney said he had to get on top of an ice block to break it.
The two divers swam back to shore with the woman in tow. She lay on top of Sweeney as French hacked ice to clear the way. She was not moving, Sweeney said. Her eyes were open, but they were not blinking.
“When we got her to the shore, I saw her eyes move, which was good sign,” Sweeney said. “And her head moved slightly.”
The rescue, from when the divers arrived to when they brought the woman to shore, took 17 minutes, Sweeney said.
Water rescues are challenging, Sweeney said, especially in cold weather. Low temperatures typically cause gear and masks to freeze and headphones to malfunction, making it harder to communicate with the rescue team on shore.
Sweeney added that rescues such as the one Monday would not have been possible without the on-shore crews.
“They’re the steering wheel for us,” Sweeney said. “We just jump in, and they tell us whether to go right, left or straight.”
The woman, who was not identified, was taken to IU Health Methodist Hospital in serious condition for treatment of hypothermia. Her body temperature, Sweeney said, was about 2 degrees below normal.
Sweeney and French said those who come out of cold-water rescues are likely to survive.
“Being in cold weather actually helped her out,” Sweeney said. “Her heart was still working and her blood was still flowing.”