PITTSBURGH -- The convention center worker sweeping the riverwalk pathway yesterday morning around 9 heard a voice but wasn't sure where it was coming from. But after stopping to listen, there was no mistaking what the frightened voice was saying:
"Help," echoed out from somewhere inside the walls of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center's riverwalk. "Help."
As it turned out, runoff from heavy rains had swelled the already swollen Allegheny River, and it had risen about halfway up the riverwalk. It was also flooding the maintenance tunnels, or "chaseways," behind the walls on either side of the descending, curvy waterway, an architectural element with parts of the convention center on either side and above it.
And that's where the cries were coming from.
The worker called 911.
Nearly two hours later, paramedics rescued a 27-year-old homeless man from a 340-foot-long tunnel.
The victim was identified as Rebecca Hare. James Holman, the county's emergency management district chief, said the victim told him he was in the process of undergoing a sex change. Rescuers said he was suffering from hypothermia when pulled from the tunnel and taken to UPMC Mercy, where he was treated and released.
The only entrance to the tunnel where the homeless person was found is a locked steel door on the banks of the Allegheny River. Mark Johnson, facilities director for the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority, said entry likely was gained by climbing through a gap above the door, or through thin openings that run along the walls of the river walkway.
The tunnels inside the riverwalk walls are conduits for piping that serves the convention center.
Though the entrance at the river is of normal dimensions, the tunnel height lowers until it is little more than a crawl space as it continues inland toward the front of the convention center.
That meant the rescue was challenging from the start.
"It took a little while to figure out where [the trapped person] was because there was no contact with him," said Chief Holman.
Paramedics launched an inflatable boat into the river and tied it up at the tunnel entrance. While the boat bobbed and pitched, rescuers wearing divers' wet suits unlocked the door and entered the tunnel.
They found the person huddled 275 feet inside the tunnel, wearing jeans, a down jacket, sneakers and gloves, and helped him through the nearly waist-deep water to reach the rescue boat.
Paramedics quickly loaded him onto a stretcher that they carried up the concrete embankment to an opening they had made in the fence along Fort Duquesne Boulevard.
While the rescue was in progress, city police closed Fort Duquesne Boulevard to inbound traffic. Those lanes were used as the staging area for emergency vehicles and equipment.
It was lucky the rescue occurred early in the day because the Allegheny River, already above flood stage, continued to rise throughout yesterday. The high water likely would have filled the tunnel.
Mark Leahy, the convention center general manager, said the tunnel serves as a mechanical corridor for the piping and valves used to run the water feature. He said workers had been in the tunnel Wednesday to shut off the electric supply and lighting in anticipation of flooding and had locked the door behind them.
"We know for sure it was locked," he said, adding that convention center officials had to give rescuers a key to unlock it yesterday morning.
Mr. Leahy said he believes the person got into the tunnel through an opening above the door. Convention center officials now will take steps to better secure the area.
"Eventually that will be a riverfront park down there and we need to make it more secure than it is," Mr. Leahy said. "Obviously, there was a breach and we've got to come in with a long-term fix."
Mr. Leahy said he was not aware of any requirement for a secondary access point. He said there's a need for more than one entrance or exit where the public gathers, but that the tunnel would not fall into that category.
"Places of public occupancy do require secondary egress. This mechanical corridor is not for public occupancy," he said.Mark Belko contributed to this report. Jim McKinnon can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1939.