Officials: Woman trapped on drawbridge was trespassing
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (WSVN) -- City of Fort Lauderdale officials said a woman who got trapped on a drawbridge Saturday was trespassing, but people who know the woman say she is legally blind and missed all the signs.
The Dania Beach resident was walking across the New River Railroad Bridge when it began to open, leaving her hanging more than 22 feet in the air. Rescue workers used a 24-foot ladder to bring her down safely.
Fifty-five-year-old Wanda McGowan, who was wearing a pink shirt, told authorities she had participated in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer 5K Walk earlier that morning. A witness who saw the woman on the drawbridge attempted to alert her, to no avail. "The track was down and they started walking onto the bridge and at that point I hollered at them to go back, but they didn't hear me," said Natalie Putnam.
Several bystanders called 911. A woman told the dispatcher that McGowan was hanging on to the tracks.
Caller: "She's on the tracks on the bridge. The bridge is open."
911 dispatcher: "The bridge is open, and she's on there?"
Caller: "She's on there, yes. She couldn't get off."
Another caller had also taken part in the cancer fundraiser.
Caller: "I'm doing the breast cancer walk and the bridge, one of the bridges is going up, and a woman in standing on it."
Other witnesses captured McGowan on cell phone video clutching on to the wooden railroad ties that hold the rail in place.
A friend of McGowan who was in the breast cancer team with her said they were separated, and the 55-year-old woman, who, she said, is legally blind, missed all the "No Trespassing" signs. However, the friend continued, McGowan thought she had seen the color pink across the way when she crossed the bridge.
On Sunday, Wanda's former landlord said she was glad ti hear her former tenant is OK. "I certainly don't want to see anyone hurt," said Nancy Stafford.
A statement from city spokesperson and fire official Matt Little read in part, "We are thankful that the individual involved in this life-threatening incident survived. The decision to trespass on private property was an unfortunate, poor choice that endangered the trespasser's life as well as the lives of the first responders."
The drawbridge, which crosses the New River between Las Olas Riverfront and Historic District, is operated remotely from Jacksonville and is usually up. Officials said it only comes down when a train crosses the river. It then automatically returns to its position high above the tracks.
At a news conference Monday, the Fort Lauderdale firefighter who rescued McGowan described how he brought her down from the drawbridge. "I told her, 'OK, so here's what we're going to do. We're going to climb down that ladder together. I have you; don't worry about it,' and that was it," said Michael Hughes.
The firefighter explained why fire rescue crews decided not to lower the drawbridge but to rescue McGowan immediately upon arriving on the scene. "The delay would have been too long, and by the time we got to her, we had her down in three to five minutes," he said.
A 911 caller suggested using a ladder to bring McGowan down.
Caller: "We need, like, a ladder or something like that, so you can get her down. I don't know how long she's going to last."
911 dispatcher: "OK, so she's not in a car, right? She's actually hanging?"
Caller: "She's like, eh, trying to hold on ... but nobody can reach her because it's too high."
Back in 2010, Lynn University student Kyle Conrad died after falling from the New River Railroad Bridge as it was going up.
As for the 55-year old's incident Saturday, Little said, "The decision to cross the clearly marked railroad bridge should not be lauded. We hope the news reports about this incident will help to educate the public about the dangers of pedestrians attempting to cross railroad bridges."
A spokesperson for the Florida East Coast Railroad, which operates the section of tracks, said it is unclear whether the company will press trespassing charges, but it is certainly a possibility.
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