Portsmouth couple, Trooper credited with saving jumper’s life

Larry and Lynn Walsh rowed their inflatable dinghy out to rescue woman

By Jim McGaw
Posted 11/1/19

PORTSMOUTH — From their waterfront home at 2 Bayview Ave., Larry and Lynn Walsh enjoy one of the most spectacular views of Mt. Hope Bridge and the surrounding bay one could …

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Portsmouth couple, Trooper credited with saving jumper’s life

Larry and Lynn Walsh rowed their inflatable dinghy out to rescue woman

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — From their waterfront home at 2 Bayview Ave., Larry and Lynn Walsh enjoy one of the most spectacular views of Mt. Hope Bridge and the surrounding bay one could imagine.

When they looked out their window the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 29, however, the sight horrified them.

A women in her early 50s was floating in the water near the Portsmouth side of the span. Just moments before, at about 1 p.m., she had parked her car on the bridge, got out, climbed over the railing and jumped into the waters below.

The Walshes live in such proximity to the bridge that they could make out the chatter above from Rhode Island State Troopers, who were working a safety post on the span due to ongoing construction work. Troopers tried to make contact with the woman but could not get to her before she leapt.

“We heard yelling from the bridge,” recalled Mrs. Walsh during an interview at her home Friday afternoon. “I just opened the window and I could hear some expletives, I guess you could say? Someone just ran from their car and jumped off.”

“When we heard people on the bridge saying that the jumper was still alive, my wife right away said, ‘It’s somebody’s life; we have to go help,’” Mr Walsh said at a news conference Friday morning at Rhode Island State Police Headquarters in North Scituate.

The Walshes got their small inflatable dinghy, normally used to bring them to their moored sailboat, and set off from in front of their home, located just south of the new Mt. Hope Park at the bottom of Bristol Ferry Road.

State Police Detective Michael O’Neill, meanwhile, was already in the water and about 40 to 50 yards away from the victim as he swam toward her during his own rescue attempt.

A plainclothes member of the Gaming Enforcement Unit, Detective O’Neill had been working a detail nearby and heard the radio transmission from his fellow troopers above. He responded to the base of the bridge, grabbed a flotation device from his cruiser and jumped in near the old ferry landing.

Rescuers join forces

“I entered the water and got maybe halfway to her when I turned around and happened to see the Walshes,” Detective O’Neill said.

He motioned to them for assistance. The inflatable was too small for three people, however.

“My wife jumped out of the boat so Detective O’Neill had space to get in. She swam back to the old ferry landing," Mr. Walsh said.

Mrs. Walsh shrugged when asked if she was worried about making it back OK in such cold waters. "I can swim," she said.

She did pay a price in another way, however: When she jumped into the water, her cellphone was in her back pocket. That was why she wasn't at Friday's press conference, which was scheduled rather hastily. Her husband heard about it, but couldn't reach her. 

The two men managed to get to the woman — she was up against a large abutment under the bridge, about 250 yards from the Walshes' beach — and secured her to the side of the boat before Mr. Walsh rowed back to shore.

“The detective asked her what her name was and she told him,” Mr. Walsh said. “That made both of us feel better, that she was conscious. Then he kept on saying, ‘We’re happy that you’re here,’ and he kept on talking to her to keep her engaged."

“You try to put her at ease as best as possible,” added Detective O’Neill. “Obviously, what she went through was pretty traumatic.”

The rest of their time in the water “was sort of like a blur,” Mr. Walsh said. “But once we got back, fortunately Portsmouth fire and police were there, and my wife and I stood aside and let everyone do their job.”

The woman was transported to Rhode Island Hospital by Portsmouth rescue workers.

“Our heartfelt well-wishes go out to this woman,” said Col. James M. Manni, superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police and director of the R.I. Department of Public Safety. “She is reported as being in stable condition and is expected to make a full recovery.”

Col. Manni praised the actions taken by Detective O’Neill and the Walshes.

“We commend the brave actions of Detective O’Neill, and Lawrence and Lynn Walsh and thank them for their bravery and lifesaving efforts, which reflect the longstanding history and tradition of excellence in law enforcement long associated with the Rhode Island State Police,” he said.

The colonel said it’s a “pretty uncommon occurrence” for a state trooper to jump into the water to rescue someone. “In the years I’ve spent on this agency, I’ve only heard of that a handful of times,” he said. “Detective O’Neil stated, ‘Any trooper would have done what I did.’ I’m proud to say he’s probably right.”

Detective O’Neill told him, however, that he’s not sure he could have made it back to shore without the Walshes’ help. 

“The water was very cold and he was losing some of the feelings in his limbs after being in the water only a short amount of time,” said Col. Manni. “I’m very appreciative of Mr. and Mrs. Walsh for taking it upon themselves to go out, not only to rescue the woman who went off the bridge, but one of our brave Rhode Island state troopers.”

Added Detective O’Neill, “I can’t express how grateful I am that the Walshes decided to take action. They didn’t have to do anything. I’m just doing my job and these folks are home trying to enjoy their day.”

Mr. Walsh, in turn, thanked the trooper for being at the right place at the right time.

“We’re just thankful that Detective O’Neill was there because we’re not trained — he’s trained,” he said, adding later, “The trooper was taking a big risk, jumping into the water. There was a current flowing out.”

“Your training takes over,” said the detective, who is being nominated for a Lifesaver Award, one of the highest honors for a state trooper. “Our training incorporates a high-stress environment and how to handle that.”

Constant area of concern

Col. Manni said “although we’re honoring three people today, our thoughts” are with the woman who jumped from the span on Tuesday. 

“Unfortunately, the large bridges have become an area of concern over the past 30 to 40 years” because of despondent people who wish to harm themselves, he said. 

“Our message to all those people is, we will help any way we can … to try to get you the help that you need,” said Col. Manning, noting that both State Police and the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA), which maintains the Mt. Hope Bridge, partner with Samaritans, the organization that works toward suicide prevention and supporting people who have lost someone to suicide.

In 2015, Col. Manni left the State Police to be director of operations for RITBA. One of his jobs was to collect statistics on the number of bridge-jumpers over the past 50 years. However, on Friday he couldn’t provide any specific numbers on how many people jump from the Mt. Hope Bridge annually. That number, however, doesn’t appear to be trending one way or the other, he said.

“The threat of despondent people going to a bridge and making a desperate move … that constant is there at that bridge and other bridges,” he said. “We take this matter very seriously. There are emergency numbers posted at these bridges. Of course, if anyone were to call the State Police, we would help them as well, and that would be the same for any law enforcement.”

Mr. Walsh said while he and his wife were glad they could make a difference on Tuesday, they were disheartened to see yet another person take such a desperate measure. 

“To be honest with you, we’re really sad that people have to take that step — to do that. When you hear or read about it, it’s bad enough, but when you actually see it, it starts to affect you a little bit more. We just hope that she’s OK and that other people get the help that they need before the detective and ourselves have to do this again.”

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.