When a Man Was Drowning, These Three Strangers Risked Their Lives to Save Him

Jumping in the river was easy. Getting back on land? Not so much.

Mike Mcgregor for Reader's Digest

It was 7:15 a.m. on June 1, 2016, and Gary Messina, now 58, was on his morning run along New York City’s East River. Suddenly something caught his eye—a large 60-year-old man balancing on the four-foot-high railing that guarded the path from the water. As Messina, a New York City Police Department captain (now a deputy inspector), got closer to the scene, the man took a step forward and plunged into the dark, choppy river below.

When Messina reached the railing, the man was bobbing in the water, clearly unable to swim. If he had intended to kill himself that morning, he had now changed his mind. He screamed frantically for help as the current pulled him away from the seawall.

Other joggers also heard the man’s pleas. David Blauzvern, now 25, and John Green, now 31, dropped their phones and keys on land, along with Green’s sneakers, and jumped in. “People had called the police, but it was unclear when they’d get there,” says Green, a commercial insurance broker. “We just reacted.” Messina joined them in the river.

Just as the jumper was losing strength, Blauzvern, an investment banking analyst at CSG Partners, grabbed hold of him. The pair were about 30 yards from the seawall when Messina and Green caught up to them. They stabilized the man, with Blauzvern supporting his back and Messina and Green holding him up from either side. He was unresponsive but not unconscious and no longer thrashing about.

As the men made their way toward the concrete seawall that stretched for blocks in each direction, Blauzvern had an awful realization: With the water flowing a good eight feet below the lip of the wall and no ladder or dock in sight, there was no way out of the river.

By now, a crowd had gathered on land. “A rescue boat is on its way,” someone yelled to them. Treading water was getting tougher by the minute. The jumper, who was six foot two and weighed around 260 pounds, was deadweight in his rescuers’ arms, which meant they could use only their legs to maneuver themselves. After ten minutes, they managed to get to the river’s edge. Green tried wedging a hand and a foot into a tiny crack in the wall, cutting himself in the process. But he couldn’t hold on for long. Fighting the current and holding the man above the water quickly became exhausting, so they gave in to drifting while staying as close to the wall as they could. (Don’t miss these other water rescue stories that will make you rethink how you swim.)

“I’ve never been so out of breath,” says Blauzvern.

Fifteen minutes after the men had jumped into the river, the two-man rescue boat appeared. But because it couldn’t risk getting too close to the seawall, the men had to swim out to it. As they approached the boat, they encountered a new threat: The under­tow created by the current was sucking them under the boat.

Blauzvern remembers being pulled down just as someone in the boat grabbed onto the man, allowing Blauzvern to let go. “I was completely out of energy at this point,” he says.

Somehow, he grasped a pole attached to the boat deck and hauled himself aboard. The men in the water pushed the jumper while the men in the boat pulled him up and, finally, to safety. Messina and Green then got themselves aboard, and within ten minutes, the group was back on land. The man they had saved was taken to the hospital for evaluation. Details on his condition have not been released.

As for the rescuers, each of them was at work by 10:30 a.m. “I was a bit late,” admits Blauzvern, smiling. “But I had a good excuse.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest