Cpl. Travis Burrows of the Buffalo Valley Regional Police Department held tight to a rescue rope with one hand, clutched onto a woman he was saving with the other and wondered if he’d make it out of the Susquehanna River’s West Branch alive as its frigid waters rushed over his head Wednesday morning.
The unidentified woman crashed her vehicle about 7:50 a.m. on the Lewisburg side of the Route 45 bridge that spans the river. Police said that after the crash, she walked further east on the bridge and jumped off. Burrows rushed into the water to save her. He had help.
“If it wasn’t for him,” Burrows said of a citizen who risked his own safety during the rescue, “there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have made it.”
Scott Vaughan, a Geisinger anesthesiologist, drove over the bridge on the way home from work and said he witnessed the woman scale the railing. He pulled off Market Street, rushed to the shore and could see the woman floating downriver. Vaughan had begun wading into the water near Saint Louis and Water streets when Burrows arrived.
Police initially were dispatched for the crash before learning en route the woman reportedly jumped. Burrows arrived and from his vantage point, said he thought she was dead before she could be heard moaning. He stripped himself of gear and with a 100-foot rope, waded in her direction.
Vaughan clutched the other end of the rescue rope, fighting the river’s current as he struggled to hold his footing in chest-deep water and pull the two to shore. The river knocked him off balance. He swam back to shallower water and pressed his feet into the ground below.
“The river current was quite strong. The weight, it was very heavy,” Vaughan said. “When I was in that water pulling on that rope, I felt I was doing all I could to help our (first responders). I know they do all they can for us.”
Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper John Zaktansky said the water temperature was 41.6 degrees Fahrenheit near Milton at the time of the incident. He cited Sean Reese, a program scientist in Watershed Sciences and Engineering at Bucknell University, who maintains data collection equipment in the river.
Chief James Blount of the William Cameron Engine Company estimated the river’s depth at 3.6 feet where the woman landed in the water.
Burrows, a bass fisherman familiar with that spot on the river, said there were points farther from the bridge where the water went above his head.
“I’m already exhausted,” Burrows said, describing how he struggled to hold the rope and the woman while fighting the current and the cold water. “I look up and (Vaughan’s) sliding down the river, he’s falling down.”
The rope went slack. Burrows went below water.
“I can’t let her go but I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it out. Luckily, this resident, he was able to get his foot in again, hang on and keep the rope taut,” Burrows said.
Union County Sheriff Ernie Ritter arrived and rushed into the water to help.
“Travis was out over his head. Scott was up to his waist or better,” Ritter said.
Ritter grabbed the rope to help pull Burrows and the woman to shore. Chief Deputy Sheriff Scott Hahn spotted a canoe nearby, grabbed it and floated onto the river. Burrows was pulled over the canoe and the woman guided alongside, Ritter said.
Burrows, Vaughan and the woman all were helped out of the water to awaiting ambulances from the William Cameron Engine Company, which responded for medical and water rescue. Officers from Milton Borough Police Department and Pennsylvania State Police troopers also assisted on scene.
“They did an amazing job getting her out of the water quickly,” Blount said.
Burrows and Vaughan were taken for evaluation at Evangelical Community Hospital, Lewisburg. They were treated and released. The unidentified woman was taken to Geisinger Medical Center, Danville. Burrows said he’d been told she’ll recover from her physical injuries.
Burrows stressed his gratitude for Vaughan.
“I was spent. I was wasted. He didn’t realize when I got him to help, his life’s on the line, too,” Burrows said.
Vaughan said he and Burrows exchanged thanks at the hospital.
“I was there only to help to pull them to shore,” Vaughan said.