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Boilermaker surges into action to rescue flash flood victim

John Messina, L-154, and an unidentified man carry Harold Gold to safety from his stranded vehicle during a flash flood in Pittsburgh.

JOHN MESSINA, LOCAL 154 (Pittsburgh) credits his training as a Boilermaker for preparing him to face unpredictable and dangerous situations. And not just on the job. Messina’s fast action and problem-solving skills helped him save an elderly gentleman from a very dangerous — and potentially deadly — flood the afternoon of July 6 after a sudden downpour hit parts of Pittsburgh.

Messina, who comes from three generations of Boilermakers and Teamsters, had just picked up his 13-year-old daughter, Allura. The father/daughter duo was headed out for dinner. Dark, menacing clouds began to gather; and within minutes, a heavy summer storm was sweeping through the area.

As they drove through a suburb south of Pittsburgh, low lying streets along a busy stretch of road dotted with gas stations, restaurants and other businesses began to teem with water runoff. The storm drains were quickly overwhelmed, and the water started rising fast. People either drove to higher ground or abandoned their vehicles to escape what soon looked like a small river.

Watching the scene unfold and realizing the danger, Messina turned his truck to avoid the flooding. Swirling water rising up the doors of an apparently abandoned red sedan caught his attention some yards in front of him.

“Something inside of me said this isn’t right,” Messina recalls. And that’s when he saw someone in the car.

He parked in a gas station lot with a small crowd of onlookers, jumped out of his truck and told Allura, “I gotta go.”

“As a Boilermaker, we’re trained to handle accidents and dangerous situations,” Messina says. “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who react and those who hesitate or don’t react. I just knew I had to go.

“I emptied my pockets, took off my shoes and ran through the parking lot and some shrubs to waist-high water rolling around the car.”

By this time, the water had risen to within a few inches of the bottom of the car windows and was so deep, he notes, “the car was actually floating just off the road.”

Messina found an elderly gentleman in the car — who he later learned was 90-year-old Harold Gold — who seemed a bit bewildered by his circumstances. Messina told him, “I’m going to get you out of here, don’t worry.” After spending a few seconds evaluating the position of the car and its passenger (at the same time noticing that Gold had a handicap parking permit on his rearview mirror and a cane on the floorboard on the passenger side), Messina knew the only way to get Gold out was through a window so as not to flood the car and risk the chance of turning a rescue into a tragedy.

As he told Gold exactly how he was going to get him out and what Gold could do to help (how to sit with his back to the driver side door, put his legs over the console toward the passenger door and put his arms behind his head and out the window), Messina wrapped his hands under Gold’s arms and pulled him out of the car. Then, joined by another man, they carried him about 50 feet to the safety of the gas station parking lot.

Paramedics at the scene determined Gold was not injured or in danger, and they ushered him into the gas station where he sat down and had a cup of coffee to help calm his nerves. In the meantime, the water had begun to recede, so Messina waded back out to Gold’s car to get his cane. Then, they walked to Messina’s truck where Gold sat in the front seat wrapped in a blanket Allura had given him and called his wife and AAA to come get his car. Messina even drove Gold home.

“I think it was a brave thing to do,” Gold later told Pittsburgh’s WTAE Action News 4. “The water was pretty fast and going up pretty fast, and I really think my situation was becoming, for lack of a better word, precarious.”

“I’ve worked almost 17 years as a Boilermaker, including as a steward and foreman,” Messina said. “Coming up through the ranks, taking all the safety classes, learning from what’s happened to others, knowing what’s right and what’s wrong…that experience is invaluable when in the clutch.

“I didn’t know what was coming next, but I knew we didn’t have much time; so I moved and did everything as fast as I could while trying not to panic Mr. Gold,” he said. “I definitely kicked into survival mode.”

After dropping Gold at his home and meeting Gold’s wife, Messina showered, went to the hospital for a tetanus shot and did an interview with the local CBS station Channel KDKA.

And that dinner Messina and Allura had started to get earlier that day? They finally ended up at a restaurant called Little Tokyo. “It was nice to just sit and know that Mr. Gold was safe, Allura and I were safe and that I had helped someone that day.”