HOLMBERG: Helicopter rescue on the James — practice pays off

Posted at 1:12 AM, May 15, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-15 07:14:36-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) -- If you’ve seen video of the smooth, sure rescue of a young man who jumped off the Powhite Parkway bridge Wednesday morning, you may think this is something the River Rescue and  Medflight teams have done plenty of times.

They have practiced it, in fact. The Virginia State Trooper piloting the Medflight chopper,  David Barfield, said pilots have done landings on even smaller rocks than the one he touched down on shortly before noon Wednesday. But those were practice.

This was the real deal. A first for the team.

And what are the chances that someone who jumps about off a bridge some 75 feet above the shallow, rocky James River  would be lifted, still alive, into the belly of helicopter just one half hour later?

It began at about 11:07 a.m. Wednesday. Virginia Commonwealth University professor  Van Wood was driving northbound on the bridge when he saw a  car pulled over in the no-stop shoulder zone.

He saw a young man, about the same age as one of his students, get out of the car and close the door.

“He goes immediately to the edge of the bridge,” Wood said, “climbs over and leaps . . . without a pause, no break, no like, ‘I’ll give it some thought here’ . . .  He leaps.”

Wood said it was surreal. He thought what he could do? He didn’t have a rope.

So he dialed 911.

So did an off-duty  Virginia State Trooper going over the bridge who also saw the jump.

That trooper also made a call to the state police Medflight hanger all the way in Chesferfield County. They rolled out two choppers and heated them up.

One, piloted by Sgt. Perry Benshoof, raced ahead and scouted the low ceiling in the heavy gray sky. Could they get to the patient and then fly up to the high, rooftop landing pad at VCU Medical Center?

He gave the go-ahead, and Barfield’s team pulled off the unusual river pickup.

Richmond Fire Department River Rescue team member Shaun Whiteley was among those one the rock, huddled over the victim they had already stabilized in a rescue stretcher after racing down to the scene and paddling out to the rock to get to the victim, who had floated some 150 feet downriver and had managed to partially roll onto the low, flat rock.

Whiteley said he never had one moment’s doubt about his team’s safety as the chopper touched down, blowing up a fine cloud of river water.

They’ve seen these pilots work before, he said. He completely trusted the team coming in from that gray sky.

Wood, the professor, said the helpless feeling that washed over him in that surreal moment of seeing the jump has been replaced by a belief that the uncanny rescue will give the jumper a reason – some extra motivation – to go on and live a long, good life.

He said he’ll pray for that to happen.