Low-head dams create river-wide hydraulics that can be nearly impossible for a boat or swimmer to escape from. Many boaters aren’t aware of the danger these so-called “drowning machines” pose. Such was the case on the Des Moines River in Iowa, where a small boat was swept over the the Center Street Dam, trapping a husband and wife in the powerful hydraulic. A video of the dramatic crane rescue shows 67-year-old Patricia Ralph-Neely with nothing but determination and an ill-fitting life vest keeping her head above water.
That’s when Jason Oglesbee, crane operator Joe Lowe and their co-workers swung into action. Suspended from the crane, Oglesbee grasped Ralph-Neely’s outstretched hand, and pulled her to safety.
“I don’t know, they just harnessed me up, dropped me down to the water and I grabbed her,” Oglesbee told the Register after the 2010 rescue. “The crane drug her to a boat and that was it.”
“What are you gonna do in a situation like that? It’s no big deal, the whole crew did it.”
Modesty aside, Jason Oglesbee very likely saved Ralph-Neely’s life. Her husband Alan Neely drowned in the accident. That’s why this story is important for paddlers and anyone who may be called on to rescue a person in need. Until every low-head dam is converted into a safe whitewater park we need to be aware of these potentially deadly hazards. And while we can’t carry a crane in our boats, all of us can get trained in swiftwater rescue, carry a rope and pin kit at all times, and stay calm and collected in an emergency.