NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- A city firefighter who was nearly killed last year trying to rescue a climber on a cliff face on East Rock has returned to work.
At the time, Lt. Jay Schwartz, 49, who was a supervisor on Squad 2, worried that doctors might have to amputate his foot after he suffered a severe compound dislocation and torn muscle and tendons while trying to free climb to a young woman who had attempted to climb the rock and gotten precariously stuck.
He looked to his brother, a deputy chief in the West Haven Fire Department, and asked for reassurances, a promise that he would leave the hospital with two feet.
"He just looked at me and he wouldn't promise me and I thought, 'That's not good.'" Schwartz recalled.
Schwartz tumbled about 70 feet down the steep, rocky incline in a fall that colleagues said could have killed him. He survived, but suffered the very serious ankle injury.
Even after it was surgically repaired, his surgeon, he recalled, provided a blunt assessment: About 90 percent of people who suffer this type of injury never return to work.
At best, they said he had 18 months to two years of recovery and physical therapy, starting with basic manipulation to strengthen the muscles and tendons he had left and then, essentially, learning to walk again.
The accident happened Oct. 6. Two Yale students were attempting to climb the treacherous face of East Rock in an area that starts as a steep incline and graduates to a cliff face. The male made it. The female got stuck and wedged herself into a crevasse where she could brace herself.
As some members of Squad 1 prepared to lower themselves by rope from the top, the woman said she began to lose her grip and was afraid she would fall.
Schwartz and two colleagues started up toward her from the bottom.
They were about 10 feet from her when Schwartz fell, triggering a second rescue operation in the rough terrain. Firefighters above lowered themselves to the stranded woman. Firefighters below tended to their injured colleague and shielded him with their bodies from rocks that were rolling down the hill.
He returned to work last month and is working on temporary assignment at the New Haven Regional Fire Training Academy. He already was a certified instructor on technical rescues and teaches across the country and internationally.
He hopes to return to the firehouse and resume his work on his squad.
But there were doubts, both for Schwartz and his friends.
Initially, fire Capt. William Gould had no doubts that Schwartz would return "but as time went on I did. I thought it would be too much for him to come back."
At the same time, "this job has a way of getting inside of you and you want to keep doing it."
Climbing East Rock is against city ordinance and against the law. The couple was charged, but the charges later were dismissed in court, in part, because it is not clearly marked.
Afterward, the young woman visited firehouses where she spoke with and thanked her rescuers on both Squad 1 and Squad 2. She met Schwartz, who said he had no ill feelings. A person found herself in a predicament and the Fire Department responded as it is supposed to, he said.
He lost the tendons that move his toes and continues to walk with a noticeable limp. With 26 years on the job, Schwartz has long been eligible to retire. He said he's not ready. His wife is a nurse and his daughter starts nursing school next week.
His son, who turns 21 soon, hopes to become a firefighter, he said. He said he wants to stay on the job at least long enough to see him in a New Haven uniform, if that's where he lands.
His injuries didn't dissuade him.
"We've talked about it, He knows people get hurt."
Copyright 2012 - New Haven Register, Conn.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service