Swift communication and the heroic action of three Walsh Construction workers likely saved the lives of two kayakers who got trapped beneath the Whittier Bridge construction site in Newburyport, Mass., in floodwaters with strong currents following torrential rain.
At 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 7, Jeff Trider, a pile-driving foreman for Walsh, was on the west side of the bridge that connects Newburyport and Amesbury. He says he was drilling temporary 30-in. caissons when he saw a group of kayakers paddling along the shoreline of the Merrimack River toward the bridge as dark storm clouds gathered.
Walsh Construction, Chicago, is the lead contractor for the $300-million Interstate 95 bridge replacement, a Massachusetts Dept. of Transportation project, where three footings for the new bridge are complete and steel erection is underway.
Trider climbed up on a jack-up barge to get a better look and saw two of the 18 kayakers veer off in the direction of two rake barges in the strong outgoing tide. With the full “super” moon cycle and currents up to 7 knots, he was concerned for their safety.
“It couldn’t have been a worse day to be on the water with a hailstorm later that afternoon,” says Ed Bullock, site safety manager for Walsh.
Trider quickly radioed Mark Chaisson, the general foreman, for help. As a Chesapeake native who helped his father run a marina, Chaisson has years of nautical experience. “We need a boat here right away,” he recalls saying. “Two kayakers are trapped under a rig at Pier 3 and can’t get out.”
Chaisson had just finished a bridge tour with Walsh superintendent Paul Gramaldi and had dropped him off at the jobsite trestle in his red running skiff. Chaisson immediately called the tugboat operator, who notified both the Newburyport and Amesbury Harbor Masters.
“When I arrived, the Amesbury Harbor Master was there, but I yelled to him and other kayakers to leave the area,” he says. “I was afraid they could get hurt by our motors.” As they dispersed, Chaisson saw a woman, later identified as Newburyport resident Rosalie Cuticchia, still upright in her kayak but pressed against the undercut “raked end” of a barge.
“I couldn’t see the other kayaker, but then realized he had gone vertical and he was under the barge with his boat flopping back and forth. The guy was still in his kayak with his life vest over his head and I could see his head through the armhole. Water was at his chin.
“He looked like a deer in the headlights,” Chaisson says.
In the violent whitewater with 1-ft waves splashing into her kayak, Cuticchia was slammed against the barge, yelling for help. “I braced myself with the paddle wedged against the barge pointing in and was trying to stabilize my kayak,” she says.
“Dave, the other kayaker, went under a few times and said his legs were caught; his life jacket was too loose,” she says. “ I can’t swim and don’t like water, so I was determined to stay upright and not to go in the river.”
“Then the rope from heaven appeared,” she recalls, as Trider lowered a rope down from over the barge. “I grabbed the rope and passed the noose to Dave, who needed it more than I did.” She credits the Walsh rescue team with saving both of their lives.