2 Hopewell officers recall water rescue
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Nov 4, 2013, 11:50
JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Hopewell Police Officer Cathie Mitchell goes to be checked out by medical personnel Tuesday afternoon.
HOPEWELL — In the days following Tuesday’s chain of events, Officer Cathie Mitchell and Officer Robert Stamper both still feel the chill of the water. It started as a trespassing call at the Hopewell Marina on Tuesday afternoon and when both of the officers responded to the call neither had any idea it would turn into a water rescue effort, a first for both.
The call came into the Hopewell Police Department around 1 p.m. for reports of a woman trespassing on the property. Mitchell and Stamper responded and made contact with the woman, who has not been identified. Mitchell said the woman did not want to say much of anything. After spending a few moments with her, the officers told her she needed to leave the property.
The woman appeared compliant and did not appear to be a danger to herself or anyone else, so both officers felt confident leaving the scene. As Mitchell got into her car, she spotted the woman walking back to the pier, close to the construction area. It was then Mitchell knew the woman was going to jump into the water. She began making her way back.
“As I was going around the corner she was sitting on a concrete pile and she’s holding a Bible,” said Mitchell, who has been with the division for over 25 years. “She’s just looking out at the water. I came around and said, ‘Ma’am, you can’t be back here,’ and she held out her finger, like wait a minute, and just walked right into the water.”
Mitchell, who is one of the candidates for Hopewell Sheriff in the Nov. 5 election, said as soon as the woman got up, she took off running toward her, but was 20 feet too short and could not catch her in time. The moment the woman hit the water, Mitchell’s screams of “Help, help” filled the air and the day changed for both officers.
Officer Stamper, who has been with the department for almost 6 years, was right around the corner and heard his badge number over the radio and immediately turned his car around, racing back to the scene. Not letting any moment pass her by, Mitchell began removing her shoes, vest, and belt, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw Stamper peal into the parking lot.
“I wasn’t going to jump into the water if I wasn’t going to have a backup because I know that the undertow is really bad there and I didn’t feel safe going in without a backup,” Mitchell said, calling Stamper her “angel.”
Once Stamper arrived, he too began removing all he could, as quickly as he could, to jump into the river to try and save this woman’s life. Though both officers noted time was relative in moments of a rescue, Mitchell estimated only five minutes had passed between the time the woman got into the water and the time that she and Stamper dove in after her. In that five minutes, the woman had almost reached the middle of the river, a distance that both Stamper and Mitchell knew things could take a turn for the worse.
“She was out far enough that he and I were seriously questioning whether or not we were going to go in after her,” Mitchell said. “... Every second we watched her, she was going further downstream, she was going further away. We just felt like if she got out of our sight, she wasn’t going to live. I heard them calling for boats and I didn’t feel like there was enough time. If she had gotten any further away, we probably wouldn’t have gotten in. I think at the last possible moment that we saw an opportunity to feel safe ourselves is when we chose to go in.”
Mitchell said when she saw Stamper get ready to get into the water, she dove in, knowing he was coming in right after. As Mitchell is making her way toward the woman, who by this time had stopped swimming and was beginning to just float, she began using verbal techniques to get her back to shore, using statements such as “I don’t want to die today. I don’t want to drown. Don’t fight me.”
Though Stamper was right behind her, the woman began to grow agitated with his presence in the water. He was not going to leave Mitchell in the river, so he stopped and began treading water as she got to the victim.
“As soon as I got close enough to her, she started to resist,” Stamper said. “... It was very obvious she did not want me to approach. I began to tread water and wait for Officer Mitchell to return safely with her. I wasn’t going to leave until she was safe with her.”
The woman had jumped into the river with a long fleece coat, a coat that turned out to be a lifeline. Mitchell grabbed the woman’s coat and started back to the shore. Though the woman was the one being rescued, Mitchell said about half-way back, she felt the woman was trying to help her back to shore, but due to the water temperatures and her exhaustion, she could not.
Though neither officer has had formal water rescue training, or even lifeguarding experience, both dove in, knowing they had a life to save.
“You just saw somebody out there and you just dive,” Stamper said.
“I don’t think there was ever any issues or ever any thought,” Mitchell said. “The only thing we could see was that woman dying. ... Nobody was trying to be a hero or anything. We just didn’t want that lady to die.”
With the woman safely in tow, both officers made it back to shore, a shore that was now full of officers, fire and EMS personnel. Stamper said the shore full of officers and emergency personnel was a testament to the working relationship of all the departments in the city.
“If it wasn’t for the well-working relationships, from the sergeant, the communication, to the EMS, to detectives,” Stamper said. “The entire division was there. It was a family effort.”
In the days following the water rescue, both officers can still feel the water and see the woman in the river. It was a first water rescue effort for both officers, and it is apparent it is one that will not soon be forgotten.
“For a few hours, I kept seeing her step over that side,” Mitchell said. “That was a little traumatic, actually watching her and not being able to save her.”
“It was very challenging to stay focused because of the cold,” Stamper said. “... It’s still cold when I think about it.”
Despite the cold water and the challenge of making it to the woman in time, both officers answered their call of duty that afternoon, a call that required them to help save a human life, and a call that both take seriously.
“You don’t even think,” Mitchell said. “You just think about human life.”
“We had a preset purpose of rescuing her,” Stamper said. “Not dying.”