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Fla. officer recalls dramatic water rescue

Officer helped save woman clinging to bridge 


Related PoliceOne article: Taking the plunge: Water safety that could save your life

Tampa Tribune 

TAMPA, Fla. — The choice wasn't easy, but it was a simple one.

Either jump in, or the woman clinging to the side of the Howard Frankland Bridge would certainly die.

It was 7:30 p.m. and Tampa police Officer Ryan Jurjevich was among a handful of officers and a Florida Highway Patrol trooper who responded to the spot where a motorist reported seeing a woman standing on the edge with a car parked nearby.

When officers arrived, the woman had been in the water for about 15 minutes. They threw a life preserver and ropes to her, but she was unable to save herself.

Looking out over the dark waters of Old Tampa Bay, the officers could not see any boat lights from a responding Coast Guard or police marine unit.

And so, 26-year-old Jurjevich took off his gun belt and shoes, quickly snapped on a life preserver and a pair of flippers and jumped in.

He dropped feet first from the northbound lanes of Interstate 275 -- about a 35-foot drop.

"If she would have gone under, it would have been over," he said today standing near the spot under the bridge where they were pulled to safety. "It was too dark for anybody to see her underneath the water."

The water was about 55 degrees.

"When I hit the water, it takes your breath away," he said. "I couldn't even speak."

Jurjevich swam to her, secured the life preserver around her and grabbed the rope the other officers had dropped down.

The woman clutched him, crying on his shoulder, Jurjevich said.

"She's saying she's so sorry that she put me in this predicament and that she didn't want to die," he said.

Things could have been worse, he said.

"If I didn't have a life vest on, and she had resisted me, then I'd have gone under," he said. "The current was ripping out."

The officers on the bridge pulled them a half mile to safety. The rope nearly broke and began to fray, Jurjevich said. The rescuers stopped pulling until another rope was tied to it.

Halfway back to land, the woman passed out. Her arms fell away from Jurjevich's sides, and so he stopped kicking his flippers and wrapped both legs around her so that he wouldn't lose her.

A Tampa Fire Rescue unit arrived and finished pulling them from the water. The woman was diagnosed with hypothermia. Jurjevich had the beginning stages of hypothermia and was transported to Memorial Hospital.

Jurjevich's body temperature had dropped to 94.9 degrees. In the ambulance ride, he was wrapped in a wool blanket and given warming pads.

By the time he got to Memorial Hospital, his temperature had risen a couple degrees. It reached 98 degrees two hours later, and he was released.

Jurjevich said he can still feel the chill of the waters and was told to avoid cold temperatures for a while. His right hand still shows signs of a rope burn.

The incident is being investigated by the Florida Highway Patrol, which had the first officer on scene. The agency declined to release the woman's name.

The patrol took the woman into protective custody under the state's Baker Act because she was considered a danger to herself, police said.

Jurjevich has been with the Tampa Police Department since August 2004, police said. He grew up in Oshkosh, Wis., and swam competitively for his high school and college teams.

About two years ago, he almost had to dive into the Bay to save a capsized boater near the Gandy Bridge and has kept a pair of flippers in his trunk ever since, he said.

"Just in case," he said. "I knew it would be a matter of time. I just didn't know when."

In an odd twist of fate, while Jurjevich was struggling with the Bay's cold waters, his parents were relaxing in his hot tub, waiting for him to come home for dinner.

His mother, Peggy Lefeber, and stepfather, Jim, arrived in Tampa last week to visit him. They had expected him to be home around 7:30 p.m. and after a while were growing concerned.

His mother got out of the hot tub and saw that she'd missed a call on her cell phone. Another officer had called to say that Jurjevich was OK and explained what happened.

She expressed pride at her son's heroism but said she was not surprised by it.

"He knew he was capable," Lefeber said. "He's a pretty strong guy. He's amazed me since he became a police officer. He's changed so much."

Copyright 2008 Tampa Tribune

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