Beasley Baker and Russ Galvan were at the riverfront the afternoon of May 2 only by chance. Barge cleaners at Upper River Services in St. Paul, they were picking up extra hours at work and taking a break down on the company wharf along the Mississippi River.
Then Baker looked up and saw a man floating by, barely treading water.
He hadn’t seen what commuters had witnessed moments earlier on the Robert Street Bridge: the same man pacing back and forth erratically before climbing over the bridge rail and jumping.
Baker shouted “Man overboard!” as colleagues Randy Kohl, Jesse Harrison and Ben Brooks jumped to join him and Galvan. The crew grabbed a company towboat, raced out into the flooded river and pulled the man aboard.
On Tuesday, Ramsey County Sheriff Jack Serier and Capt. Scott Stoermer of the U.S. Coast Guard honored the five river rescuers in a short ceremony, presenting them with lifesaving awards and certificates of merit.
“One of the finest traditions in maritime is that when the call goes out, everyone responds,” Stoermer said.
The man they rescued, who is 31 and whose name has not been released, was clearly sinking, Galvan said.
The April snows had just melted, flooding parts of the Mississippi and raising water levels under the Robert Street Bridge by about 7 feet. The current, always fast, was more intense with the flooding and had carried the man nearly a half-mile in just a few minutes. The water temperature wasn’t much above freezing.
The man refused the life ring at first, Galvan said: “We threw it back. I said, ‘You have to hold it.’ He got it under his elbow and we lifted him up.”
Later, first responders estimated that he had no more than a minute left before he would have drowned.
In the boat, the man was distraught and dazed. He kept reaching for his clothes, until Galvan held him down.
“He was out of it,” Galvan said. “I asked him why he jumped, and he said Lucifer was chasing him.”
The river had carried the man from the Robert Street Bridge to the Lafayette Bridge, where the Upper River Services employees — all experienced barge cleaners or mechanics who were trained for river rescues — fished him out and brought him back to shore. He was then taken to Regions Hospital for treatment.
The sprint to save him highlighted the preciousness of life, Serier said.
“There are times when at a moment’s notice we may be called upon to do something we had not expected to do that day,” the sheriff said. “And indeed, that call came on May 2.”
Harrison, a mechanic who helped guide the towboat to the man and lift him out of the water, said he hadn’t heard much about how he was doing.
“Hopefully he’s happy that we saved him,” Harrison said. “I hope it can be a second chance.”