|New Square Chasid, Heshy Gottdiener|
I love featuring stories like this one from North Jersey:
Heshy Gottdiener had been on the Hudson River for about four hours Tuesday, just about a half-mile south of the George Washington Bridge, when he saw something drop from the span a little before 5 p.m.
It was an unseasonably warm and clear afternoon, but Gottdiener still couldn’t tell if the object that plunged into the frigid water was debris or something more horrific.
It was only when he saw the splashing, that Gottdiener realized a person had jumped — and survived. Screaming, he thrust a pair of binoculars into the hands of a companion while another person, Joseph Margaretten, dialed 911.
In a bizarre twist of fate, Gottdiener, a 36-year-old father of seven, was helping volunteers from the tightknit, ultra-Orthodox enclave of New Square, N.Y., search for the body of another jumper, David Ahronowitz, who leapt from the bridge on Jan. 22. Ahronowitz, 46, was the second person to jump from the span this year.
Gottdiener had just witnessed the third.
Gottdiener explained that the New Square community had hired two boats and a pair of divers to search for Ahronowitz’s body. “We know a person has to be buried in order that the soul should rest in peace,” he said.
Fortunately for the latest person to jump from the bridge, this group of Orthodox Jews and their helpers were about to perform a rare rescue.
Immediately, Scott Koen, the boat’s captain, shouted for the volunteers to haul the divers and their gear out of the water. Seconds later Koen waved off an NYPD helicopter, which had swooped down over the boat following the 911 call and had mistaken the divers for a rescue effort. Following Koen’s arm signals, the helicopter flew under the George Washington Bridge and hovered about 40 feet over the spot where Gottdiener had seen the splash, flashing its lights for the boat to hurry over.
Koen, 58, a volunteer firefighter from Rutherford, rushed to the bow of his boat and cut the anchor rope. As he sped toward the bridge he was sure this would be a recovery. Since 2009, only one person had survived the 200-foot plunge from the bridge; 95 people died. But as Koen got closer, “I could see there was an eighth of a face above water.” It was a woman lying on her back, kicking gently with her legs.
Miracle on the Hudson
Koen has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. During 30 years as a “river rat,” he said, he has been involved in 11 rescues. Koen just happened to be on the river in January 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 landed on the Hudson. That time, he helped passengers off the plane using the dive ladder on the back of his boat, a 46-foot buoy tender called the Michael P. Murphy.
This time, Koen circled around the woman so that she could climb up the ladder and divers threw her a rope. Gottdiener said her eyes were wide open and she was screaming for help. The woman said that she couldn’t climb the ladder because her legs were broken. “She started to sink,” Koen said. “I just jumped in the water and supported her while I got a line under her arms.”
The divers and Orthodox volunteers pulled the woman onto the boat. Her left leg was badly broken just above the foot. They covered her with coats and blankets while a medic from New Square’s volunteer emergency medical service, Hatzolah, administered first aid.
The 25-year-old woman from Somerset County gave her name and date of birth. She told the men that she had left some clothes and belongings on the bridge. A Port Authority spokesman said later that her car was found on Fort Washington Avenue in Manhattan.
Koen knew that the closest dock was more than a mile away in Edgewater. After speaking with fire department officials from New York, he turned his boat toward a large rock on the Manhattan shoreline under the George Washington Bridge. Koen nosed his boat up against the rock and a fireboat pulled alongside. Firefighters boarded, strapped the woman to a body board and carried her over the rock to shore where police cars and ambulances were waiting to ferry her to Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital. A Port Authority spokesman said that the woman was suffering from trauma, but that she was conscious when she reached the hospital.
Suicides have become an increasing problem for the Port Authority, which runs the George Washington Bridge. A Port Authority spokesman said the agency is working to deter jumpers. It has put up signs every 250 feet along the bridge’s walkway encouraging people to call a suicide prevention line, and the Port Authority Police Department has stepped up foot patrols.
Yet suicides from the bridge are rising. Between 2005 and 2009, an average of five people jumped from the bridge each year. Over the past five years, an average of 15 people have died annually jumping from the bridge. Attempted suicides are rising too, from single digits 10 years ago, to dozens of people in each of the past few years. Port Authority police said they intervened in 86 suicide attempts last year.
The Port Authority has spoken for at least a couple of years about installing a fence along both sides of the bridge to stop people from jumping. But the project, which is expected to cost between $35 million and $50 million, has not yet begun. The first suicide-proof sidewalk is scheduled to open in 2020.
Gottdiener said he is convinced that the woman would not have survived if he and his fellow volunteers hadn’t been searching for Ahronowitz’s body. “There were no other boats in the water at that time,” he said. “I never knew I am going to be in such a situation, literally helping to save someone’s life.”
Gottdiener will be back out on the water today and, if necessary, for days to come, looking for Ahronowitz’s body. Gottdiener said that the community won’t stop searching “until we find him.”