Lena Wang (left) on the Potomac Boat Club dock this morning. Key Bridge and Harbor police circle in the background.
Lena Wang (left) on the Potomac Boat Club dock this morning. Key Bridge and Harbor police circle in the background. (Sadie Quarrier)

Bridge Jumper Saved in Icy Potomac

Two rowers rescue young man

Lena Wang (left) on the Potomac Boat Club dock this morning. Key Bridge and Harbor police circle in the background.

“What was that splash?”

Just before 7 a.m., Sadie Quarrier and her sculling partner, Lena Wang, prepared for their first row of 2014. Their streamlined craft swayed alongside the Potomac Boat Club’s launching dock as they made final adjustments to brave the frigid D.C. morning. Most of the ice had vanished from the river earlier in the week, but the water still hovered below 40 degrees. As she balanced the boat with her toe, Wang heard the splash. The pair immediately looked toward Key Bridge—a two- or three-minute row downstream.

The duo climbed into their two-person scull and rowed quickly toward a figure bobbing in the water. “It was hard to tell if it was a person,” Quarrier, a senior photo editor at National Geographic, told Outside. Whatever caused the splash was thrashing in the river, fighting against the pierced surface of the Potomac. Roughly three minutes after they’d heard the sound, the women steadied next to a stunned young man, who appeared to be in his mid-twenties, and helped him onto the top of the boat.

Secured between Wang and Quarrier, the man seemed to be in shock—he neither welcomed nor resisted the help as he clung to the open scull. Suffering from his time in the 39-degree water, he moaned as the women tried to stay upright. “This was not a thrill seeker,” Quarrier later said. “You don’t just fall off Key Bridge.” Quarrier had brought her cell phone along in a Ziploc and tried calling a rowing coach she often saw on the water. But, after many rings and a text, there was still no response.

In recent years, similar incidents have taken place on Key Bridge. In January 2013, police stopped a man from jumping after hours of negotiation. In December 2012, another jumper wasn’t as lucky. And this latest incident, in late February, also had near-freezing waters as a major safety concern. Without a protective wetsuit, humans typically fall victim to hypothermia, dying within 10 to 20 minutes of entering 40-degree water. The Potomac Boat Club makes a point of reminding rowers just how dangerous winter waters can be.

Against the jumper’s wishes, Quarrier dialed 911 as the three floated below Key Bridge. Nearly 90 feet above, hundreds of commuters passed over the six-lane bridge, oblivious to the scene below. The dispatchers she reached insisted that Quarrier stay on the line as they sent metro and harbor police. Another pair of rowers, Billy Cox and Katie Stainken, soon pulled over next to Quarrier and Wang’s boat. Using an oar, Cox and Stainken locked the two shells together to create a more stable, pontoon-like craft. The rowers were quiet as they rowed toward the dock they’d left just moments before.

Once on shore, nearly ten minutes after Quarrier’s 911 call, sirens blasted as harbor police arrived by water. Quarrier asked the officers to turn off their sirens, thinking the jumper had already gone through enough. The young man was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. Boats churned the cold, winter water in front of the Potomac Boat Club, and the scene soon faded into just another peaceful morning.

Quarrier returned to her office on 17th Street. “I hope, if this was an act of desperation,” she later told Outside, “that we provided a nice twist of fate.”

From Outside Magazine, April/May 2021
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Lead Photo: Sadie Quarrier