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Hypothermia, rising tide among dangers as firefighters rescue man from St. Johns River

Driver’s car careened off Dames Point Bridge Saturday night

Jacksonville firefighters saved a 27-year-old man in a dramatic rescue Saturday evening in the St. Johns River, hoisting him out of the water after his car fell over the Dames Point Bridge.
Jacksonville firefighters saved a 27-year-old man in a dramatic rescue Saturday evening in the St. Johns River, hoisting him out of the water after his car fell over the Dames Point Bridge.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville firefighters saved a 27-year-old man in a dramatic rescue Saturday evening in the St. Johns River, hoisting him out of the water after his car fell over the Dames Point Bridge.

Photos from the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department show a captain harnessing the man and as crews on the bridge pulled him to safety. The driver had gotten out of his car, which was underwater. He was taken to the hospital, but amazingly only had minor injuries after the 35-foot fall in his vehicle.

The accident happened in the southbound lanes of I-295 approaching the Merrill Road exit. The conditions were dark, cold and rainy, adding to the danger of the situation.

“When I first got down to him, obviously, he was very thankful that I was there,” said JFRD Capt. Phillip Orelli, the rescuer who lowered down to pull the man up. “He was very cold, and he was just really appreciative, and he was ready to get out of that water.”

Orelli, from Ladder 30 in Regency, said it was the most memorable call of his 16-year career.

“It was definitely an adrenaline rush and something that we’re very happy it turned out the way it did,” he said.

The captain, staying humble, told News4Jax it was a team of police and firefighters who helped save the man’s life after his car plummeted over the guardrail into the chilly water.

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The man, whose name wasn’t released, was kneeling on the roof. The tide was rising, and hypothermia was the biggest danger.

“There’s a lot more people behind the scenes than there is with what you see with me on the end of that rope,” Orelli said. “I’m just a guy in the seat for the day that just happen to be the one that was there to answer the call at the end of the line, but I can’t do what I do if those guys weren’t there doing their job.”

JFRD marine units were en route, but the crews on the bridge rescued the man with their ladders before the boats could arrive.

“It could’ve been a tragedy, and thank the Lord that it wasn’t,” said JFRD Chief Keith Powers.

Powers commended the dozens of first responders involved, saying they train for rescues just like this and put their lives on the line when it matters the most.

“These men and women when they come to work every day they know that they’re taking that chance, but they’re going to do whatever they can to rescue the people we serve,” he said.

JFRD Capt. Phillip Orelli and Chief Keith Powers are pictured Monday at Station 30. (WJXT)

State troopers said this happened because another driver, a 37-year-old man, was speeding and hit the 27-year-old man’s sedan from behind. The investigation continues, and the 37-year-old driver could face charges.

Jacksonville City Councilman Al Ferraro witnessed the crash. He said it was foggy, wet and a dangerous situation. He commends police for traffic control and JFRD.

News4Jax has requested the crash report from the Florida Highway Patrol, which was not completed as of the publication of this article.


About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.