May, 2015 – Graham Miln

Swept Along by the Rhône

When we arrived, the gates of the park were closed. It happens from time to time. The wind is too strong or the park staff are delayed. At 6:30am it is better not to expect too much.

I watched a woman press the security intercom next to the gate. The buzzer rang followed by a series of tones but no answer. Not reassuring. The button had, until then, seemed like a good way to get attention in an emergency.

Megan caught up with me and we agreed to change our route. We like to know where each is running in case of problems. The river side run is not as attractive as the park but it is traffic free and not too far away.

I have something of an aversion to parts of the river side walk. It was there that I slipped and hit my head on the concrete. Those moments of blood streaming down my face and the subsequent hospital visit are memories I do not want to evoke.

Strip of pavement where I slipped.
Strip of pavement where I slipped.

Today it would another man’s turn to visit hospital.

The bridges act as markers along the route. Pass under a few bridges, turn around, and head back home. That was the plan.

The wind was strong and it blew bits into my face as I ran. The water was much higher than I had seen in my years in Lyon. Waves lapped over edge of the path. The normal metre drop from the bank to the water was gone. It has rained heavily for days now and it showed in the river’s volume and force.

Listening to music, sunglasses shielding my eyes, I ran along. Two stationary runners appeared in the distance talking to each other. As I passed they had that look of tourists wondering what to do and who to ask for directions. Just then they called out to me. Odd, runners rarely need directions.

She was a younger woman. He an older man. She spoke. A flurry of French that I understood in a vague manner. Understanding enough but taking a moment to register. “Dived?”, I countered to confirm my fears.

Her look as she noted my not being local was unfortunate. Another runner only a few paces behind joined our growing group. He was the stroke of luck she wanted; he had a phone.

For the next few minutes we found ourselves tracking a person who had fallen – or dived – into the turbulent thrashing river Rhône.

The emergency services were called, in France dial 18. The universal 112 works but 18 is better.

Staring out over the river looking for a person, we moved down following the flow. Every so often a dark shape would come in and out of view. A person? Difficult to be sure. Then the shape again. Certainly a person. An arm raised. A small figure being propelled at speed along towards the next big bridge.

Pont Passerelle du Collège, Lyon, France
Pont Passerelle du Collège, Lyon, France

They had entered the river dropping from Pont Passerelle du Collège. I hoped the next bridge might catch them. A thump certainly but a place to cling onto and hold firm while help arrived.

For after the bridge comes turbulence. Swirling, ebbing waters, choppy, white with foam. Metres of churned up water created by the bridge’s plinths.

The shape had vanished.

Flashing lights started appearing along the river bank.

An electric cleaning cart appeared beside us. The driver getting out, confirming this was the location, then driving on ahead. His tone suggesting he was aware of the situation.

We were helpless now. The emergency services were arriving further down the river. On both shores I could see flashing lights moving through the traffic and stopping at the edges of the next bridge.

We ran along. Looking all the time for the shape, for the person to reappear. Had they clung onto the bridge?

Passing the bridge, moored boats limited our view.

Then between two boats I saw him. A small helpless shape still being swept down the river. Arm seemingly raised. Seconds later a powerful boat crossed my view. The boat took a couple of attempts to grapple the soul and drag him to safety. The engine roared and the boat swept in a tight u-turn, repositioning itself for that second attempt.

I stayed by the river side wanting to see the event end. An ambulance stopped near me and as the boat approached, I could see a young man. Wrapped in foil. Alive, shaken, but sitting up in the boat. He was surrounded by emergency services and would soon be on his way to hospital.

There was nothing more to do. I had closure and I had stayed for that. The notion of leaving after the call was made had crossed my mind. What could I do? Had I left I would have wondered, always wondered, what had happened. So I stayed only until I knew the man was safe.