Brighton Heights’ paramedic shares firsthand account of Fern Hollow Bridge collapse
Jon Atkinson serves as a medic with the City of Pittsburgh’s Police SWAT Team, a diver for the River Rescue Unit, and president of the Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics Local 1 Union.
By Joseph Glassbrenner
Photo: Jon Atkinson stands in the living room of his Kleber Street residence with his American Akita, Kodi.
This article was originally published in the Brighton Heights Citizens Report, a publication of the Brighton Heights Citizens Federation. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
When people ask, ‘What are some of the greatest things about Brighton Heights?,’ how might you answer? You could say our homes, because of the craftsman-style architecture and character they harness. Some might say the convenience and accessibility to City parks, grocery stores, and Downtown. Others may believe our churches, because of the beauty and diversity of each of them. I want to share with you what I believe is the greatest thing: our people.
On the morning of January 28, 2022, Jon Atkinson was enjoying a day off from his usual 6 a.m. start time as a City of Pittsburgh paramedic, although his alarm was still set for 7:30 a.m. for a meeting. Atkinson serves as the president of the Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics Local 1 Union and had a scheduled meeting to discuss a number of items with the deputy chief. Before Atkinson even became fully awake, he was sifting through “a bunch of texts about the [Fern Hollow] Bridge.” It soon became clear that something big had happened, but he was unsure how serious the matter was until he made the call to his deputy chief. The deputy chief answered the phone and began to brief Atkinson about the bridge that had just collapsed. Atkinson asked, “Did it actually completely collapse?” and “Is this going to affect our meeting?” Her answer was direct: “This is something major,” she said.
Atkinson hopped in his truck and left his quiet street for the Fern Hollow Bridge. While on the 15-minute drive from his Kleber Street residence to the site, Atkinson used this time to follow the communications over his dispatch radio to get up to speed on the crisis at hand.
“There was a ton of radio traffic, but what caught my ear was the assistant chief was in the ravine with a group of patients that needed brought out of the ravine,” Atkinson said.
I asked him, “What did you see upon pulling up?” Atkinson told me: “The entire bridge was collapsed; there was a huge gas leak spewing gas so loud you could barely hear.”
After making radio contact with his assistant chief, Atkinson called out over the radio, “I’m here at the scene. I have a four-wheel drive truck. Do you want me to come down there?”
The answer was short: “Yeah, come down.”
The following events consisted of combined efforts by the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (OEMHS), Pittsburgh Park Rangers, and Pittsburgh Emergency Medical Services.
Alan Hausman with OEMHS showed Atkinson an access gate located in the back of Homewood Cemetery while park rangers led the safest route by way of 4×4 Gator utility vehicles. When they arrived at the bottom of the ravine, “rescue truck medics had already done the hard work” to get down there and stabilize those injured. The next step was loading one female patient into the bed of the truck and securing her by way of a rescue basket. Another male who was on the bridge when it collapsed was told to “ride up front with me.” The male stated, “I feel fine. I just need to get to work.” They slowly made their way to the top of the hill to safety, where ambulances were ready to transport the injured people to local hospitals.
Atkinson let his training and instincts lead the way to a heroic and unorthodox rescue this day, like he has done repeatedly in his 21 years of service to the people of Pittsburgh. He has accepted all opportunities to further his training and skills. This has led to positions as a SWAT medic with the City of Pittsburgh Police SWAT Team, a diver for the River Rescue Unit, and as stated previously, the president of the Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics Local 1 Union. When Atkinson is not working, he volunteers as the Chief of the Seville Volunteer Fire Company. In the spare time he has, he enjoys walking his dog Kodi, spending time with his girlfriend, and playing ice hockey.
I want to thank Atkinson for taking the time to share his story with me. If you see him in the neighborhood, feel free to introduce yourself and thank him for representing Brighton Heights so well.