Jumping into rivers is a thrill for some, a safety hazard for others

Brian Heath was 12 years old the first time his older cousins took him out to the Black Bridge in Westbrook to jump into the Presumpscot River. He was instantly hooked.

Now 30, Heath and his friend Derek Drouin, 18, talked last week about the thrill they still get from jumping into the river, as they walked from Saccarappa Park to the Black Bridge – the city’s two most popular spots for plunging into the Presumpscot.

“That few seconds of freefall is where it’s at,” Heath said.

For Drouin, the greatest rush comes after the jump, as he emerges from the river.

“The water beading off you, the breeze, it feels great,” he said.

Most people jumping off bridges into southern Maine’s rivers and lakes are doing it from spots where others have done the same for decades. It’s a quick way to cool off from the heat and show off to friends. Even for adults, the rush of adrenaline keeps them coming back. But a harrowing incident last week demonstrated one of the dangers of the summertime tradition. Getting a running start for a leap into the Saco River off a bridge on Route 202 in Buxton, a 12-year-old was struck by a pickup truck and critically injured on July 28.

John Lamb, a spokesman for Maine Medical Center, said Monday the family of the boy, whom he identified as Jack Vincent, has asked the hospital not to release any updated information on his condition.

Authorities agree that people should be kept off bridges on busy roads, but their concerns vary in regard to other risks associated with the sport.

York County Sheriff Maurice Ouellette said there’s a trestle, just down the river from where Vincent was injured, where kids like to jump.

“I don’t see a problem with that at all,” he said.

But as soon as car traffic is involved, Ouellette said, it becomes “a huge safety concern.”

“That’s where the danger is,” he said.

Westbrook Police Capt. Tom Roth disagrees.

“I don’t think there are any rivers in Maine you can jump off into and be safe,” he said, listing water levels, underwater hazards and strong currents among his concerns.

Roth said the department gets calls all the time with reports of people jumping off the Black Bridge. Officers regularly patrol the area, as well.

“It’s a perennial problem,” he said.

Jason Cole, assistant chief of the Lebanon Rescue Department, said this year’s heavy rainfall has made the water a particularly dangerous place.

“The current is going a lot faster than usual,” he said and even strong swimmers aren’t safe. Cole pointed to the drowning death last weekend of a woman kayaking on rapids in Limington as a prime example.

Boat traffic is another hazard. Cole said he’s seen kids jump from a bridge over Northeast Pond near the boarder of Milton, N.H., and fall right into boats traveling by, seriously injuring themselves.

Michael Baumann, director of the emergency department at Maine Medical Center, said the impact of a dive or jump into the water from high up can cause people to break their neck, legs or pelvis, but that’s not something he sees often.

Most popular spots have already been tested by generations of jumpers, he said, eliminating the risks, like shallow water, which would be a concern in an unknown area.

“I think it’s not different than jumping off a 25-meter board into a pool,” said Baumann. “The danger is the bridge hasn’t been designed for that.”

Driving over a steel structure bridge in Leeds Sunday, Sen. John Nutting, D-Androscoggin, said he was reminded of why he submitted a bill to the Legislature to impose a fine on people who jump from bridges. Nutting said he was surrounded by a couple dozen kids, including a few who walked above him on 6-inch-wide beams, preparing to jump.

“It’s a very, very dangerous situation here and of course in Buxton as well,” he said.

According to Nutting, his bill was killed in committee by legislators who viewed the activity as a harmless pastime for kids in the state. He plans to submit a similar bill in January and hopes he’ll be able to convince more lawmakers of the dangers this time.

“It’s a safety issue,” he said.

Though there’s a local ordinance in Windham banning jumping, diving and swimming off most bridges, it doesn’t cover all the spots, like Gambo trestle, because it was still a working trestle when the ordinance was made.

That’s why Windham Police Chief Rick Lewsen would like to see something all-encompassing put in place.

“I’d really prefer a state law,” he said.

Ben Elliott, 17, of Bridgton, was hiking with his dad four years ago when they came across Gambo trestle. They’ve been coming back to jump off of it ever since.

Elliott said at first he was scared to make the 30-foot leap, but now he trusts it’s safe.

“It’s deep. When you jump off you really don’t come close to the

bottom at all,” he said.

After his first jump, Elliot’s friend Garth Thompson came out of the water breathing hard. He had tried to do a somersault but over-rotated and landed on his side.

Thompson, 18, of Naples said the risk of being injured is something the people jumping take into their own hands.

“You should be able to jump if you want,” he said. “If you get hurt, it’s your thing.”

Reporter Ben Bragdon contributed to this story.

Warm, sunny days will always see a crowd of thrill seekers and daredevils make their way to the edge of the railroad bridge over the Presumpscot River on the Windham-Gorham line. (Rich Obrey photo)


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