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Man dies after jump into river
Man jumps off I-95 bridge over Rappahannock River; rescue turns into recovery

 Students from Albion College in Albion, Mich., scan the Rappahannock River beneath the I-95 bridge yesterday for a man who jumped off the bridge. The students were here for the canoe race, which was canceled.
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Date published: 6/8/2009


A man jumped from the Interstate 95 bridge over the Rappahannock River at about noon yesterday, triggering a massive search on both sides of the river from I-95 to downtown Fredericksburg.

The search became a recovery operation after several hours passed without finding the man. Virginia State Police officials had not found the man by early evening and expect to resume recovery efforts early this morning.

The man was last seen floating, unresponsive, near the river's south bank along Riverside Drive.

Stafford County resident Darlene Thompson was walking her dog along the river near Fall Hill Avenue and Riverside Drive when rescuers arrived to search for the man.

She saw a body float past her, facedown, just beyond the grasp of a rescuer at the water's edge.

"We just came down to the water like this and got the worst shock of my life," Thompson said. "It's like something you see on TV."

A state police trooper driving northbound on Interstate 95 over the bridge at 11:45 a.m. noticed a man standing outside a Toyota 4Runner parked on the shoulder of the southbound bridge span, said state police 1st Sgt. Keith Hairston. The trooper turned around and drove south on I-95 to reach the man.

"She did witness him jumping off the bridge," Hairston said.

The man's name, age and hometown were unavailable yesterday. Police were attempting to reach the man's next of kin.

Heavy rain this week raised the river level and increased its speed, creating dangerous conditions for recreation. Yesterday the river safety level was yellow, considered unsafe for boating and swimming. River conditions had already cancelled this weekend's Great Rappahannock Whitewater Canoe Race.

The fast-moving water triggered a wide rescue operation, with law enforcement and fire and rescue officials from Stafford and Fredericksburg positioned at multiple points along the riverbank as far east as the Chatham Bridge.

A helicopter from the U.S. Park Police did aerial searches along the river. Swift-river rescuers in patrol boats and spotters on land with binoculars scanned the water for several hours.

Shortly before 2 p.m., the rescue search became a recovery operation. Given the time elapsed, and river conditions, officials suspect the man is pinned beneath the water's surface.

"We're making the assumption he's probably gotten sucked in or caught on a log or in a hole," said Rob Brown, chief of Stafford County Fire & Rescue.

Traffic was delayed on I-95 after the man jumped. There was a 7-mile-long traffic backup in the southbound lanes of I-95 before the bridge, and a 4-mile backup in the northbound lanes, said Tina Bundy, Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

No lanes were closed, but rubbernecking caused a delay, Bundy said.

The man's vehicle was towed off the bridge, Hairston said.

Traffic on Fall Hill Avenue and Riverside Drive in Fredericksburg also slowed in the early afternoon, as onlookers watched the rescue efforts unfold at the river's edge.

Kelly Hannon: 540/374-5436
Email: khannon@freelancestar.com

At least 12 people have jumped from Fredericksburg-area bridges and overpasses since 2000. The incidents, as reported in The Free Lance-Star, were:

May 2000: Man survives after leap from Fall Hill Avenue overpass onto Interstate 95.

January 2002: Man dies after jump from Garrisonville Road overpass onto I-95.

April 2002: Woman dies after jumping into the Rappahannock River from the northbound lanes of I-95.

September 2002: Man dies after fall from Falmouth Bridge. Police unsure whether his death is intentional.

January 2003: Police find man's body in Rappahannock River after receiving a tip that he had jumped from the I-95 bridge.

April 2003: Man survives after jumping from Germanna Bridge in Orange County into Rapidan River.

April 2004: Teenage girl survives jump from Harrison Road overpass onto I-95.

July 2005: Woman dies after jumping from U.S. 301 Nice Bridge into Potomac River at King George County.

May 2007: Woman dies after jumping from northbound lanes of I-95 into the Rappahannock.

February 2008: Woman dies after jumping into the Rappahannock from the southbound bridge of I-95.

January 2009: Man dies after leaping into Rappahannock from northbound lanes of I-95.

May 2009: Man survives after jumping from the Falmouth Bridge. The man landed on an island in the Rappahannock.

June 2009: Virginia State Police trooper witnesses a man leaping from the southbound lanes of I-95 into the Rappahannock. Recovery effort still under way.