Firefighter Brian Rothell
Photo credit: Courtesy of Skip Rowland
An ordinary mountain bike ride turned into a call-to-duty for Chesterfield County, Va. Firefighter Brian Rothell last year.
The 18-year veteran encountered a man attempting suicide on the Nickel Bridge in Richmond, Va. on March 25, 2006, who he helped save from taking a 50-foot plunge. For his display of heroism, Rothell was recently awarded with the Carnegie Medal.
The award is presented by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, a Pittsburgh-based philanthropic foundation, to close to a hundred people each year who risk their lives to save another.
Along with the award, Rothell also will receive a $5,000 grant. During the 100-plus-year existence of the fund, established by industrialist-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1904, $29.3 million has been given in grants, scholarships, death benefits and assistance.
Rothell was biking that Saturday with his friend Kate Lucas as they approached the bridge. At that time, he noticed a black male of approximately 230 pounds walking toward them.
Jimmy McMillan, a friend of the two bikers, was biking in their direction and Kate -- who was 100 yards behind Rothell -- stopped to talk to him. While he waited for the conversation to end, he heard Kate scream.
The man he saw walking on the bridge had climbed the railing and was standing with his back to it -- not over the water, but the neighboring railroad tracks. As Rothell, on his bike, made his way toward the man, he came back on the sidewalk and continued walking.
Rothell continued to follow him on his bike and told a group of passing teenagers to call 9-1-1. As he came closer to the man, he asked him, "Are you gonna' jump off the bridge?," to which he said the man answered with an expletive and told him to leave him alone.
The man began to run and Rothell gave chase on foot and caught the man's sweatshirt as he flung himself over the rail. He tried to pull the man up by his shirt but he was a good 85 pounds heavier than him and continued slipping downward, now dangling over the James River.
"All I thought was that the guy was going to drop," he said, noting that he preformed a similar drill with his department several weeks earlier and remembered how heavy the mannequin was.
As the man became more combative, McMillan came over to help. Both men were straining to hold onto his clothing and Rothell began to worry.
"In my mind I thought, 'There is no way we are going to help him up,' " he said. That is when a hiking group from the Virginia Boat Club asked if they could do anything to help.
Rothell said he was lucky a group of hikers assisted in the rescue. "If they wouldn't have been there the guy would have died that day," he said.
A man from the group replaced Rothell, allowing him to get back onto his bike to ride under the bridge and wait on the bank in hopes he could rescue him from the water if he survived the fall.
After 15 feet, however, he could hear the group and his friend screaming that they could not hold the man any longer. That's when he went back.
Rothell decided to climb over the rail and lowered himself, squeezing his leg between a drainage pipe and the concrete underside of the bridge. He was handed a backpack and attempted to snag one of the man's legs, but could not.
He repositioned himself to get closer to him and once he was close enough grabbed on to him and pulled with all his might.
He was able to pull the man close enough to the group for others to grab onto him. Before he knew it, the man was back on the bridge. Richmond Police soon arrived and took the man into custody.
"It was amazing we were able to save him," Rothell said, admitting he had doubts throughout the rescue attempt.
He said that although he was off duty, it was something he was ready for and something that people almost expected of him.
"When you're a firefighter off duty, people expect certain things from you," he said. "We do this for a living; it's our job. We see so much stuff, so many desperate situations."
Rothell said he has always stayed in shape and that before becoming a firefighter, he spent three years with the Richmond Police Department. With all of his experience and training, however, he said that nothing could prepare him for the stress that accompanied the rescue.
"It was stressful. The next day I was at my home and was in the fetal position crying. I really experienced what going through something like that is like," he said. "I couldn't sleep that whole first night.
He began thinking and rethinking the timeline of the incident, how everything began and ended. Although the story had a happy ending, he said at first all he thought about was the negative.
"You lay there and think about how it could have gone differently, how he could have pulled me over the bridge," he said. "I'm lucky that didn't happen."
Following the incident, Rothell received praise from his community, was featured by the local media and received an award from his department. He said that the Carnegie Medal makes the entire experience even more rewarding.
"As corny as it sounds, getting this award and my department award, it was the crowning achievement of my career," he said. "It really makes you feel good."