From the Vault: WCPO helicopter rescues rafter from danger of drowning in 1989

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HAMILTON, Ohio – Pilot Bill Bowman was used to flying the WCPO Newshawk helicopter to cover news stories, but he never expected to become one of the heroes of a dramatic river rescue in 1989. 

It started as a daredevil stunt by a couple of 20-year-old friends, but it almost killed them.

“We didn’t think it would end up the way it did,” a feeling-lucky Rodney Jones told WCPO afterward.

Jones and David Chandler had decided to be the first to run the rapids over the new low-level dam on the Great Miami River. When they got in their rubber raft, neither had a life jacket. 

The two made it safely over the dam only to be thrown from the raft when it got stuck in churning muddy waters.

Jones said he got sucked under.

“When we went over, I flew all the way over to the front and hit him. The boat filled up with water and we kept floating back into the dam. The water hit the edge of the raft and I flew out. The water pushed me under and I came back up about 50 yards downstream,” Jones said.

Watch Jones describe what happened:

 

From that point, Jones was able to swim through calmer waters to shore. But Chandler, who climbed back into the raft, was stuck in the turbulence pounding the raft at the base of the dam.

It was about 5 p.m. on May 25 and Chandler had been there for an hour – holding on for dear life – when Bowman and Newshawk landed amid police and fire crews that were gathered on the shore. It wasn’t safe to attempt a rescue by boat, so they recruited Bowman for the job.

“I don’t know how they ever could have got him out of there. Really, they were just lost,” Bowman said. “He could have been out there for a couple more hours if we couldn’t have done anything.”

The regular rescuers made it sound easy. Just fly over the river and lower a rope to the raft. Then pull the rafter to the shore.

Piece of cake.

SEE a photo gallery from the rescue.

But it was a lot harder and dangerous. For one thing, Bowman had never attempted a rescue. For another, it was windy and there were fears that the rope could get tangled in the Newshawk’s tail rotor.

Paramedic Jim Rhinehimer and Hamilton police Sgt. Steve Isgro volunteered to fly the mission with Bowman. Rhinehimer’s job was to hang out of the door and lower the rope. Isgro’s job was to hang onto Rhinehimer and keep him from falling out.

The wind caused havoc and they missed with their first few attempts to pass the rope to the raft. By then Chandler was nearly exhausted. Once he was able to grab the rope, Chandler jumped into the water and the copter pulled him to safety just as planned.

A weary Chandler collapsed on the bank as rescuers rushed to him. He had learned his lesson, he said.

“Never go over a dam. I’m not doing that again,” Chandler muttered.

Bowman and Rhinehimer were modest heroes.

“I think we did the best job we could,” Bowman said after landing back at the station Downtown.

Rhinehimer dittoed that.

“I think to be played by ear the way it was -- with no practice, in a news helicopter and a paramedic to be able to pull a guy out of there -- I thought we did pretty well,” Rhinehimer said.

Jones learned his lesson, too.

“If you’re gonna go rafting, wear a life jacket,” Jones said.

See other video and stories about Tri-State history in our "From The Vault" series.

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