Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
Heroism is no stranger to Tracy Armstead.  Twice, he attempted to save the life of another while working as a painter on a California state bridge.

by  Jeanne Bonfilio
Issue Date: 10/2008

Caltrans Structural Steel Painter Risks His Own Life -- Twice -- to Save Others

An integral element of the state highway system includes the maintenance of a countless number of elevated bridges and overpasses, some situated over bodies of water. And part of that maintenance may include painting. That’s where Caltrans’ bridge painters come in. Better known as Caltrans Structural Steel Painters, they are a highly-skilled and trained group of professionals who work in a unique and challenging environment, where safety is always their first priority.

While building a work platform September 8 in preparation for painting the bridge deck over the Dominguez Channel in Long Beach, Structural Steel Painter Tracy Armstead was alerted by co-workers of a man who was running down the embankment and jumped into the channel. 

Co-worker George Bedolla, immediately ran to his truck to call 911.  Bedolla, John Reid and Ray Guidry, who all witnessed the incident firsthand, called out to Armstead and then dialed their supervisor, Joe Perez, for more assistance. All felt that the man purposely jumped because he ran with arms extended and headed straight for the channel.  Seeing that the man was drowning, Armstead, 25-feet-high on the deck, jumped from the bridge without regard to his own personal safety, to come to the aid of the struggling man.

The current moved the victim rapidly downstream. “He was drifting so fast,” explained Armstead, who swam as fast as he could to reach him. But he remained just out of Armstead's grasp. Every attempt was made to save him, but due to the strong current and his heavy, wet clothing, Armstead could not make contact. Moving farther from his reach and exhausted, he eventually had to abandon his brave attempt to save the man’s life. On his way out of the water and still exhausted, he cut his hands on the sharp barnacles which were attached to the bridge pillars while waiting to be pulled to safety by his co-workers.

Paramedics arrived shortly thereafter, retrieved the victim and begin CPR. Sadly, he did not survive the ordeal. “I am very proud of the conduct of my fellow workers in the team effort to help this man,” said Armstead. “They all played a part in the attempt to save his life.”

Heroism is no stranger to Armstead. Several years ago, while working in Lompoc, he witnessed another bridge painter dangling by a safety harness 80 feet in the air under the El Jaro Creek Bridge – and once again found himself at the right place at the right time. He ultimately saved the life of that fortunate co-worker. “I was once married to a firefighter,” said Armstead. “Between the two of us and the types of work we do, the instinct to help people just became automatic.”

Supervisor Perez said his entire staff was affected by the incident. “My crew is very conscientious about helping others,” added Perez. “They didn’t take their own safety into consideration to help another. They could have just as easily not taken any action at all. We are all saddened that, try as hard as they tried, hey weren’t able to save the an’s life. This entire incident touched us all in a very emotional way.”

Special Crews Maintenance Superintendent Kevin Sciotto agreed, explaining that Caltrans Maintenance employees are a family of caring people. “We care about each other and also help members of the public all of the time – whether out on the roadways or others we come in contact though our jobs,” said Sciotto. “It is very unfortunate that the victim did not survive. But they tried their best. If we can help someone, we will. We are all very proud of the efforts of Tracey, George, John and Ray.”

Fellow Bridge Painters who assisted Tracey Armstead seated)are,  from left to right: Victor Vasquez, Ray Gidrey, John Obid, George Bedolla and Juan Gonzalez.