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COHASSET

Teen’s close call off bridge opens debate

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / July 19, 2012
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A near-drowning early this month has Cohasset officials rethinking how to keep youths from jumping off the Mill Bridge into the chilly waters below flowing into Cohasset Harbor.

One possibility is installing a net under the bridge, according to acting Town Manager Michael Milanoski. Another option is building a taller railing, he said.

Both ideas would need to be reviewed by the town’s Capital Budget Committee and get Town Meeting  approval, he said.

“We will look into it,” Selectmen chairman Paul Carlson said this week.

A local bylaw already makes it illegal to “leap, jump, or dive” from the Mill Bridge, which is located on Border Street, and two other bridges in town. The prohibition dates back to at least 1960, according to Town Clerk Carol St. Pierre. Violators face a $25 fine, which selectmen set years ago, Milanoski said.

After the near-drowning, police stepped up patrols of the bridges, but say they remain popular recreation spots with youngsters — with plunging more than 10 feet into the tidal Gulf River  at the Mill Bridge considered a rite of passage in Cohasset.

That practice almost claimed the life of a 19-year-old Boston man who jumped off the bridge July 3 and was carried over rapids toward the harbor before being pulled to safety and taken to South Shore Hospital. Officials said the teen, who was not identified, nearly drowned, but has recovered. 

His rescuers included two 24-year-olds  from Cohasset, who had spent the day at nearby Bassings Beach and stopped at the bridge for a “few jumps.” When they heard that two people who couldn’t swim had jumped, “we couldn’t believe it,” said Brendon Barrett. 

Barrett said his friend Daniel McCarthy, who was a lifeguard at the Cohasset Swim Center  for nine  years, jumped in immediately and pulled one youth to shore before going after the second, who had gone over the rapids.

Barrett jumped in to help with the second victim, who “was in real trouble. He was unconscious, his eyes rolled back in his head. We were all kind of struggling. It’s a pretty vicious tide at that point, and it’s not easy to swim on your own and drag a hundred pounds or more.”

A young teen and an assistant harbormaster helped pull the victim to a boat, and, moments later, police and fire were there with an ambulance, Barrett said. “They were as fast as could be; it could have turned out a lot worse,” he said.

The entire episode was captured on film by surveillance cameras that were installed around the harbor this year, Milanoski said. The cameras were the gift of an anonymous donor and are managed by the harbormaster’s office, he said.

Barrett credited McCarthy, his friend since preschool and now an accountant in Boston, with the rescue. “If Dan wasn’t there, it would have been a whole different picture. He really went into Superman mode,” Barrett said.

McCarthy said he and Barrett have been jumping off the bridge since they were 12 or 13 and now do it once or twice a summer. “I’ve seen thousands of people jump the bridge with nothing [bad] happening, but it just takes once,’’ McCarthy said. “Obviously, if you don’t know how to swim or you’re not used to rapids, it’s not a good place to go.”

Harbormaster Lorren Gibbons said the area “is dangerous [for swimmers or jumpers]. There’s a swift current and boats passing by.”

The town has no record of fatal accidents at the Mill Bridge, but in August 2002, 18-year-old Paul Trendowicz drowned at Cunningham’s Bridge on Atlantic Avenue, according to Assistant Fire Chief John Dockray. 

Deputy Police Chief William Quigley said a special officer added for the summer – making a total of 18 full-time officers — will patrol the bridges four or five times during his eight-hour shift and shoo away people who are there. Police also will ticket cars parked illegally on the road nearby, he said.

“Jumping from the bridge can be fun, but it’s dangerous and it’s also illegal,” Quigley said. “We don’t want to ruin people’s fun, but we will step up enforcement.”

Quigley, however, said police don’t issue tickets for bridge jumping.

“It isn’t practical,” he said. “Mostly these are young kids we’re talking about, and a lot don’t know their Social Security numbers or don’t have a state ID. Couple that with them wearing a wet bathing suit, it makes it problematic [handing them a ticket]. So we make them leave the bridge, chase them away.”

“It’s something we deal with every summer,” he said, adding that the July 3 accident hasn’t reduced the number of youngsters at the bridges. “We’re not really seeing a difference; it’s status quo,” he said.

Quigley said bridge jumping could be stopped by mechanical means such as a net, but “it’s something the town would have to decide to do.”

Selectwoman Martha Gjesteby said she opposes installing nets because they could create liability problems for the town. She suggested adding more signs to let people know that bridge jumping is against the law.

But, she added, her own children have told her that bridge jumping in Cohasset was “a rite of passage. We’ve had this the 51 years I’ve been here.”

Former police chief James Hussey made a video in 2008 about the dangers of jumping from the bridge on Border Street. The video urged parents to direct their children to the town’s Sandy Beach instead.

The police video is posted on YouTube — as are numerous videos, many set to music, of young people jumping off the bridge.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at .seltzjohanna@gmail.com.

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