By Ernest A. Jasmin, Puyallup Tribal News
No one was happier to see Puyallup Tribal Police during the early morning hours of Jan. 12 than a man perched atop a white Dodge Charger floating in the frigid Puyallup River.
According to an incident report filed by the Fife Police Department, that man was driving south on Frank Albert Road East around 12:44 a.m. approaching North Levee Road East, which runs along the river. A witness reported seeing a lone vehicle launch itself into the air before plunging into the channel. The temperature was below freezing that morning.
Fife police arrived on the scene and observed a man climb onto the roof of the car which was now partially submerged midstream. They reached out to multiple agencies to assist with the rescue. Responders included officers Loren Ottersen and Gary Tracy of Puyallup Tribal Police who navigated down the river in a 21-foot SJX jet boat.
Detective Ottersen, a 16-year veteran of Puyallup Tribal Police, recalled seeing the victim illuminated by the boat’s flood lights. The officers determined their safest approach before positioning the boat’s bow over the Dodge’s trunk. Tracy assisted the driver who anxiously climbed into the vessel.
“It was that easy,” Ottersen said. “Then we … took him to shore where the fire department and the medics were waiting for him. I’m sure he was hypothermic because, by the time I picked him up, he had been in there about an hour.”
The driver shook visibly but was able to walk with assistance. He did not display any signs of intoxication or being under the influence of any illegal substance, according to police. He was taken to Tacoma General Hospital for treatment.
The vehicle was not stable and Pierce County Swift Water Rescue left it in the river until it settled and could be safely removed on Jan. 16. The car had been reported stolen by a man who shared the same last name as the driver. The two men were not related, according to a report filed by the Pierce County Sherriff’s Department, but the car’s owner identified the driver as a friend of his brother’s. The case report was referred to the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office on Jan. 17 for review.
The accident was not entirely uncommon, according to Ottersen who described aspects of the intersection that make it dangerous for anyone who is driving recklessly or not paying attention.
“When you’re coming to North Levee, there’s a little bit of a lip as you come up,” Ottersen said. “There’s no warning. From the edge of the road to the river, it’s probably maybe 30 feet. Then with speed and you hit that lip, it’ll launch you. It’ll put you right over the trees.”
Otterson estimated that the driver may have been going 80 to 90 mph based on how far into the river he had landed.