Amsterdam firefighters donned harnesses, safety lines and orange cold-water rescue suits Monday, wading into the Chuctanunda Creek with picks and a fire ax to free the body of a local man from under a sheet of ice.
Just before 9 a.m., according to Amsterdam police Lt. Robert Richardson, a witness called 911 after he saw a man jump headfirst from the Route 5 westbound bridge into the Chuctanunda. It took an hour and a half of searching and another 90 minutes of chipping at the ice before the man’s body could be brought clear of the creek, lifted onto a rescue stretcher tied off to a fire engine’s tower ladder, and lifted out.
The man was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital where he was identified as Antonio Mera, 50. Richardson wouldn’t release his address but said he lived in the city, less than a mile from the bridge.
Police hesitated to rule Mera’s death a suicide.
“We don’t know what led to him even walking over the bridge,” Richardson said. “There’s a possibility he saw an animal on the ice and was trying to help it,” he said. “But the way he jumped — by all accounts he went headfirst.”
He described Mera as diving off the bridge into only a foot of water, an action he said does suggest suicide.
Recovering the body from the creek was complicated and dangerous.
With cold wind whipping down the valley, firefighters mounted the rungs of an extension ladder at 9:30 a.m., climbing down the northern bank of the Mohawk River where the Chuctanunda spills out. They scoured the shore, then moved north up the creek.
Making matters more difficult was the fact that the city has been built on top of the creek at that point. The water flows beneath the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, East Main Street and the Cranesville Block building before pouring out into the Mohawk. The quick, closed-in flow coupled with heavy, jagged ice made any extraction extremely hazardous.
“Everything is harder with ice,” said Amsterdam Fire Chief Richard Liberti.
Around 10:30 a.m., a few geared-up searchers moved down the banks of the creek north of Emmy Lou’s Diner. They planned to move south into the man-made cave where the Chuctanunda runs below the hall of fame. Before they entered the tunnel, one rescuer noticed a hand wedged between two pieces of ice.
“At that point it became about extraction,” Richardson said.
Extracting the body was every bit as painstaking and slow, and took more than 90 minutes.
At noon, two firefighters in orange rescue suits stood among chunks of ice in the cold creek just behind Emmy Lou’s Diner. Long, high-visibility orange ropes ran from their harnesses to the banks. One swung a red-headed fire ax, breaking off platter-sized chunks of ice while the other tossed them toward the river.
Downstream, a half-dozen more firefighters leaned against a fence behind the wrestling hall of fame, watching the two in the creek.
“I’ve been with the department for 24 years,” said Battalion Chief Mike Whitty. “In that time, we’ve done one or two recoveries from this creek, but never with ice.”
It took a long time to get Mera unjammed from under the ice, but the job could actually have been a whole lot harder, according to Liberti.
“We had no idea where he was,” he said.
If the body had lodged somewhere under the street, firefighters would have been forced to crawl over ice and through fast-running water to complete a search.
“Initially we hoped he was able to crawl up on some ice under those buildings,” Richardson said. “That he was awaiting rescue.”