83 rescued from eatery that floated downstream

Sunday, March 13, 2011
A woman walks down a fire ladder used as an improvised ramp on Friday during a rescue operation in which customers were off-loaded from Jeff Ruby's Waterfront in Covington, Ky., after the floating restaurant's moorings broke loose. Covington Fire Department Capt. Chris Kiely said diners at the restaurant used cell phones to call for help Friday night as it drifted away. (Carrie Cochran ~ The Cincinnati Enquirer)

COVINGTON, Ky. -- Kathy Kinane and her husband walked into the upscale Waterfront restaurant wearing snorkeling gear, a joking reference to the recent rain and rising water levels outside the eatery housed on a barge.

They almost needed it. The Kinanes and 81 others found themselves floating downstream during the dinner rush Friday night when the restaurant broke from its moorings. All had to be rescued one by one with a makeshift gangplank of ladders and ropes after the boat came to rest against a bridge about 100 feet downriver.

Officials said the hours-long rescue was orderly and calm. Women were rescued first, then the men. One patron would climb down the gangplank wearing a life jacket, which would then be sent back up for the next person. Among those rescued was former Cincinnati Bengals star Cris Collinsworth, Covington fire Capt. Chris Kiely said.

Kinane and her husband, Bill -- frequent patrons of the Waterfront -- had arrived around 7:30 p.m. They were finishing up around 10:15 when they felt an ominous bump. Kinane said her husband peered out the window and saw that the barge was moving with the fast-paced current. They had eaten there before with the water levels rising, but the boat had always remained in place.

"That was not a good thing," she said. "We said, 'Let's get up and leave.'"

However, they found a crowd near the exit. The walkway ramp had broken loose from shore, and the patrons had no way of getting off the barge. TV footage showed diners pacing aboard the boat as firefighters put together the makeshift bridge above the water, which was swirling with broken tree limbs and other debris.

Kiely said several patrons had used cell phones to call for help.

The power never went out, and tugboats and emergency crews arrived quickly, Kinane said.

The barge started moving when a main cable came loose, leaving the remaining cables to handle more pressure than they could withstand, said Covington Fire Chief Chuck Norris.

The barge came to rest against a bridge that spans the river, though the U.S. Coast Guard and other workers were still working Saturday to keep the boat secure until it could be towed back to its proper place. The Coast Guard and other boats worked to keep the restaurant in place until it could be moved -- and it was unclear when that would happen, said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Rob Reinhart. The river was already at least 3 feet above flood stage, according to the National Weather Service.

Traffic flowed normally across the bridge, and trains moved on an adjacent track uninterrupted.

"If the bridge wasn't there it could have traveled down the river quite a ways," said Rob Carlisle, co-owner of C&B Marine of Covington, which had dispatched a towboat to help secure the restaurant's front end.

The barge had come to a halt by the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, one of several linking Cincinnati with northern Kentucky. Reinhart said the restaurant likely would be heavily damaged if it broke free again because the top of the barge stands higher than the bottom of the bridge. He said it would have been up to local authorities to order restaurants to close because of the high river levels, though it could not immediately be determined who would be responsible for that decision.

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