Rescue hampered by Willamette's swift current and debris floating

Two sturgeon fishermen and Portland firefighters pulled a man from the icy Willamette River Wednesday night in what one veteran firefighter said was the most difficult water rescue of his career because of floating debris and the swift-moving current.

Portland Fire and Rescue officials don't know how the man got in the river. He is being treated at Oregon Health and Science University Hospital. The man's name and medical condition have not been released.

Fire bureau officials said that a man riding his bicycle along the Eastbank Esplanade heard someone in the water call for help at about 11:15 p.m. Jan. 25. Dan Sinclair, who was riding south on the esplanade, said the person was struggling to stay afloat about 25 yards from shore.

Sinclair quickly rode to Portland Fire Station 21 (Eastbank/Hawthorne Bridge) to alert firefighters that someone needed help. At the same time, Sam Policar and Justin Wisdom were sturgeon fishing near the area and tried to hook the man with their fishing lines. The river's swift current pushed the man close to shore, so Wisdom used his coat as a lifeline for the man to grab while firefighters hurried to the area.

Firefighters used the Eldon Trinity rescue boat and another rescue craft from Station 1 to get to the man who was struggling to hold onto Wisdom's coat sleeve.

As rescue craft driver Mike Held came alongside the man, Bill Schimel, a 12-year veteran of Portland Fire and Rescue, slid into the water and tried to pull the man onto the boat's platform. With the fast current, Schimel began struggling to hold the man. As the craft drifted in the current, Held asked Policar to help him steady the craft from shore while he helped Schimel pull the man onto the boat.

'I knew that if I lost my grip on him, he would drift under a massive debris field of logs that was floating just 100 yards downstream and likely be pulled under,' Schimel said. 'In my 12 years as a firefighter, this was the most dangerous rescue I've ever taken part in.'