Crane operator Joe Lowe and general laborer Jason Oglesbee saved a woman from drowning in the Des Moines River on June 30 after current pulled a boat over a low-head dam. A crew from Cramer & Associates Inc., Grimes, Iowa, constructing a steel-arch pedestrian bridge just upstream of the dam, leapt into action when rescuers could not reach Patricia Ralph-Neely, 67, who was trapped in the swirling boil for about 25 minutes. Her husband, Alan, 62, drowned.

Laborer Jason Oglesbee is lowered via crane to the boil to save Patricia Ralph-Neely, who was in a boat as it slipped over the Center Street Dam.
Photo: AP/Wideworld
Laborer Jason Oglesbee is lowered via crane to the boil to save Patricia Ralph-Neely, who was in a boat as it slipped over the Center Street Dam.
View from the west bank of the Des Moines River; this is one of the two connections where the walkways meet on the Center Street pedestrian bridge.
Photo: Cramer & Associates, Inc.
View from the west bank of the Des Moines River; this is one of the two connections where the walkways meet on the Center Street pedestrian bridge.
Photo: Principal Financial Group
Laborer Jason Oglesbee is lowered down to the water in reach of the drowning woman.

When the construction workers realized rescue boats could not get through the boil and Mrs. Ralph-Neely was showing signs of hypothermia and unable to hold ropes thrown to her, they cleared a path for their American 7260 crawler crane to bring it within reach on the east bank. Oglesbee hooked on and Lowe flew him in to pull Mrs. Ralph-Neely to safety.

Right Place, Right Time

According to police reports, the Neelys were scouting the river that day for places to bring their grandchildren to watch July 4th fireworks when their boat went over the Center Street Dam at about 4 p.m. It was a drop of 9 feet. The cause of the incident is under investigation by the Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources, but the Cramer & Associates workers who performed the rescue saw the whole thing, says Cramer owner Robert Cramer. It was the crew’s superintendent, Chad Coalbank, who first called 911.

The men were working on the bank on the east end of the $9.5 million steel pedestrian bridge. It is engineered by Arup’s San Francisco office and will form a 400-ft-long, clear span across the river, about 10 ft upstream of the dam. The arch’s 10 pre-fabricated segments are being placed now, supported by four falsework towers, each consisting of 180,000 pounds of steel H-piles driven into the riverbed.

“It seems like they [the Neelys] were having motor problems and tried to anchor,” says Cramer. “I guess they put the boat into gear and it lurched forward and that’s when the boat hit the falsework.” Cramer says. “It was our guys who told them to jump,” he said, adding that woman was still in the boat when it went over the dam, but her husband was thrown into the boil and was drowned minutes later.

Des Moines Fire Dept. Station 6 Capt. Timothy Hartman arrived shortly after the call to head up the department’s water emergency team, which began trying to save Mrs. Ralph-Neely, who was trapped in the turbulent water in a life vest, but showing signs of hypothermia. Hartman says she could not keep hold of ropes and life preservers thrown out to her. “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the most dangerous, she was a 10,” Hartman says. He says that the boil’s water cycles, which behave much like a spinning washing machine, are almost impossible to escape.

“Our supervisors decided to get the crane,” Cramer says.

According to the police report, the crew started clearing equipment and large plastic floats from the embankment to make way for their 100-ton crawler crane to move closer to the edge.

Meanwhile, co-workers prepared Oglesbee, who was already wearing a harness from work earlier in the day assembling pieces of the arch, and hooked him up to the crane’s cable. “They grabbed Oglesbee, let him sit in the chains, lowered him down,” Cramer says.
Cramer says Lowe boomed out as far as he could. The Fire Department’s boat crew aided the process by using hand signals to direct crane operator Lowe, who maneuvered Oglesbee until he could just reach Mrs. Ralph-Neely. According to the police report, after two or three attempts Ogelsbee caught hold of her life jacket, she grabbed onto him and the harness, and he dragged her to the safety of the rescue boat. She was later brought to Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, where she was kept for observation and released two days later.

The police report cites several Cramer employees, as being “instrumental in  this dangerous rescue…Dave Arp, Chad Coalbank, Bobby Karpan, Shane Tough, Kevin Brammer [and] Richard Shoene,” in addition to Lowe and Oglesbee. “… Had she been just a few feet further away, the crane might not have reached her,” Cramer says.

Missing Warning

While the events that led up to the incident are unclear, a missing warning cable that Des Moines City Engineer Jeb Brewer says crossed the river about 100 ft upstream of the dam until it broke during floods a year ago, may have been a factor. It was originally there to alert boaters of the Center Street Dam.

Brewer says the warning cable would not exactly have been something to grab onto for drifting boats in danger, but before it broke it ran 10 to 15 ft above the water with chains hanging down into the river and signs alerting boaters of the dam just downstream.

“It’s a low-head dam and it’s not very apparent if you’re new to the river,” Brewer says. There are warning signs along the banks, and Brewer says that the I-235 bridge more than 300 yards upstream has a warning sign as well, but he says the cable was not re-installed after the flood because it was decided to keep the river open for construction barges working on the arch bridge. Hartman says he wouldn’t be surprised to receive calls of similar mishaps in months to come, due to the dangers around the site and dam.

As of July 8, the crew is beyond the half-way mark for assembling the arch and walkways. Cramer expects welding to begin soon. The crew resumed work the following day, Wednesday, July 1.