Thanks to a quick-thinking bridge construction crew, a nearby crane and a brave man in a harness, a woman’s life was saved after the boat she and her husband were in slipped over a dam and left her trapped in a raging boil.

Crane operator Joe Lowe flew in Jason Oglesbee to rescue Patricia Ralph-Neely, fighting for her life in a boil.
Photo: AP/Wideworld
Crane operator Joe Lowe flew in Jason Oglesbee to rescue Patricia Ralph-Neely, fighting for her life in a boil.

At about 4 p.m. on June 30, Patricia Ralph-Neely and her husband, Alan, were scouting the Des Moines River for a place to watch July 4 fireworks with their grandchildren. They lost control of their boat near a pedestrian bridge under construction just above the Center Street Dam in Des Moines. The boat slipped past the bridge and over the dam, tossing both into the maelstrom. Both wore life jackets, but while Patricia’s stayed on, Alan’s did not, and he was drowned. Bobbing in the whitewater, Patricia was trapped in the boil and remained there, struggling against the washing-machine-like churn for 40 minutes.

“The people standing at the top of the dam kept throwing me flotation devices,” she says. But the efforts to cast her a lifeline were to no avail. Nor could rescue boats reach her in the raging water. But Ralph-Neely says she discovered that the boil had a rhythm and she learned to hold her breath each time it was about to drag her under. She says each time she resurfaced and breathed, the workers and onlookers encouraged her with shouts, claps and cheers.

While Ralph-Neely fought for her life, the crew from Cramer & Associates, Grimes, Iowa, organized a rescue. Directed by supervisor Chad Coalbank, they moved a 100-ton crawler crane to the river’s edge while operator Joe Lowe prepared to fly Jason Oglesbee, already in a harness from bridge assembly work earlier in the day, to the rescue.

Oglesbee says that if Ralph-Neely had been any further from the bank, the crane would not have reached her. “I didn’t think we could do it—[the boil] was raging that day—but fortunately we got her,” he says. “I’ve never seen anybody that close to dying, but she really fought for her life.” From her point of view, Ralph-Neely could see only whitewater and parts of the bridge from which the life preservers had been thrown. Then suddenly, Oglesbee descended. “He just appeared like an angel,” she says.


“You don’t have to worry. I won’t let you go,” said the construction worker to the woman trapped in whitewater as he drew her to safety.

After one missed attempt, Oglesbee latched a strong hand onto Ralph-Neely’s life jacket, and Lowe rotated the crane and drew them away from the boil to the safety of rescue boats hovering just downstream. “He said, ‘You don’t have to worry. I won’t let you go,’” Ralph-Neely recalls.

She says she owes her life to “the kindest, most unassuming guys you would ever want to meet.” Oglesbee has been hailed as the hero of the day, but he credits the entire crew and the ability of his supervisors. Clearly, teamwork was critical, but ultimately it came down to the performance of one brave man at the end of a line.