83 rescued after floating restaurant breaks loose

March 12, 2011 4:16:19 AM PST
Firefighters rigged a precarious gangplank of ladders and ropes and safely rescued 83 people, including former Cincinnati Bengals star Cris Collinsworth, from a floating restaurant that broke free from a pier on the flood Ohio River, authorities say.

Covington Fire Department Capt. Chris Kiely said Jeff Ruby's Waterfront restaurant drifted about 85 to 100 yards down the fast, rain-swollen river during the late Friday evening dinner hour and the popular seafood eatery then came to a stop beside a tall bridge as skittish dinner patrons looked on.

He said 83 people were safely rescued by early Saturday after an effort lasting hours, led off one by one.

"Luckily the people on the boat called" emergency services swiftly on their cell phones, Kiely told The Associated Press early Saturday.

TV footage showed dinner patrons pacing aboard the barge as firefighters boarded up the makeshift bridge of ladders that spanned swirling, murky, debris-filled water. Tugboats edged close as people gathered to watch from land.

Kiely said the regular gangplanks tore away, cutting off those aboard from shore.

"There were three gangplanks on the restaurant already and when it broke loose it destroyed sections ... the last 20 feet of the gangplanks were destroyed as the boat moved downriver," he said by telephone.

Kiely said the river had recently gone above flood stage after severe winter storms and was expected to crest in coming days.

The National Weather Service said a flood warning was in effect for the Ohio River at Cincinnati next to Covington with the river at 4 a.m. local time at 55.3 feet -- or 3.3 feet above flood stage.

Emergency crews strapped life jackets on those whose dinner of shrimp and seafood was abruptly interrupted. Reports said woman were taken to shore first, across the improvised ladder bridge strung with ropes, some removing shoes for better traction.

The restaurant is one of several dotting the Ohio River waterfront, docked on the Kentucky side of the river opposite Cincinnati. Kiely said the restaurant barge came to rest near the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge after a rear mooring line pulled taut, and the line held it firmly.

"As the barge started to float downriver, the rear line came around the front of the pier and it put tension on it and held it," Kiely said. "The worst thing that could have happened is the barge could have swung out in the current, but luckily the line held."

Kiely, who was at the site, said he saw Collinsworth -- the former Bengals star wide receiver and NBC pro football commentator -- among those rescued.

Calls by The Associated Press to phone numbers listed for the restaurant and Jeff Ruby were not immediatley returned early Saturday.