By Sarah Powell-Henning
I was born and raised just down the road from the New River Gorge Bridge, in Oak Hill, WV. One of my earliest childhood memories is of being on the Bridge with family and friends.
My mother, father, grandparents and great-grandparents (and several generations before that!) all, were born and raised in the area. My Grandmother has told us stories of watching the Bridge being built. Her house was just a stones throw away.
Dad (in green life jacket) at Bridge Day in the mid-80's
It’s safe to say my family has been here awhile, and it’s safe to say that Bridge Day seems to be in our blood.
The Dragan Brothers, founders of Wildwater Expeditions, along with Butch Christian, Tom Stafford, and some other Wildwater originals, were part of a group that formed the Bridge Day rescue boats. Many know them simply as, “The Pick Up Guys”.
My dad, Tom, was a part-time raft guide in the 70’s and 80’s for Wildwater Expeditions, and for a couple of years was part of this team.
I remember hanging out on the rocky shore of the New River, watching the jumpers aim for the target. More often than not (or so it seemed), Dad and the other guys would rush to pluck jumpers out of the water.
The jumpers would get out at the bank, cold and soaked, but smiling and ready to pack up and do it all over again.
Dad and Tom Stafford pull in a jumper
Jon Dragan and Tom Stafford are no longer with us, nor is my Dad. He passed away two years ago.
So this past Bridge Day, I was beyond touched to have the opportunity to get into the rescue boats with Tom Dragan and his crew and experience for myself what it’s like to be part of “The Pick Up Guys”.
Riding with the Rescue Team
I didn’t know which rescue boat I’d be in. When I stepped into Missy and Shane Dragan’s boat, it was a good feeling. After all, our fathers had worked together.
Here’s what I learned:
This team moves fast. Missy and Shane kept their eyes on the sky most of the time, expertly judging where the jumpers would be landing. Before they even hit the water, a boat was on it’s way.
And once they got to the jumper, they had to quickly pull them up into the boat, gear and all, because chances were good that someone else needed to be picked up.
Dropping a jumper off at shore (side note - some sweet 80's fashion going on in this pic!)
Jumpers (as many as four at a time, at one point that morning) ride in the boats until the rescue team gets a break in the action and can drop them off at shore.
Their job is critical. There’s no doubt that what the rescue boat team does is one of the most important jobs on Bridge Day.
After the exhilaration of just jumping off The New River Gorge Bridge, some of those who make a water landing might not exactly have swimming at top of mind. Jumpers are not wearing life jackets, making it imperative that a boat get to the jumpers quickly.
One of the strangest things we saw was a jumper who landed in the water and lost her shoes in the drink. The jumper was fine. The shoes? Never to be seen again. She didn’t seem too worried about it though, since she’d just made her first jump off the New River Gorge Bridge.
Teamwork is key. And this team was tight. There was constant communication about jumpers coming in, who would grab them, the status of jumpers. There were times when two or three boats needed to work together to assist a jumper. I’ve never seen a team more focused or in control.
One of the toughest things about being part of the rescue boat team? Finding time for a bathroom break. Who would have thought?
Me on the boat in 2011 with Missy and Shane
A Reflective Day
I want to thank Missy, Shane, and Tom Dragan and the entire rescue boat team for providing the opportunity to experience something that was a very special part of my Dad’s life.
For a moment, I was able to close my mind to the action and reflect on how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful place, full of determined, generous people.
Most of all, I thought of my Dad.
I thought of his life, and how grateful I’ll always be for our time together. He was my best friend, and riding with the rescue team gave me a chance to connect with him again in ways I didn’t expect.