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Hovercraft to ease river rescue operations

Sunday, March 2, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The latest ship in the Pittsburgh fleet of ice rescue crafts looked like it was plucked from the set of a science fiction movie and set loose on an abandoned baseball field in Highland Park.

The hovercraft, piloted by Pittsburgh police Officer Sam Muoio, lifts about a foot off the ground by pushing air into fabric pockets beneath it, sending up a cloud of snow as it speeds over the weedy lot in its inaugural trip in Pittsburgh last week.

Muoio, an airplane pilot and one of the officers assigned to River Rescue, discovered the craft doesn't care for quick turns or high weeds.

“There's no brakes,” Muoio said. “It doesn't stop like a car, and it doesn't turn like a boat. It's like flying an airplane 12 inches off the ground.”

The city used a Department of Homeland Security grant to cover 75 percent of the $93,425 cost for the Hoverguard 1000 from a Michigan company, said Ray DeMichiei, deputy director of the Department of Emergency Management.

“We always knew we had an issue with ice and shallows,” DeMichiei said. “It's something everybody in the region has identified as something we want to have. There's a lot of places this will be used.”

River Rescue struggled to find a woman in shallow water during the August 2011 flood of Washington Boulevard that killed four people, he said.

“River Rescue, through no fault of their own, couldn't get in close to the riverbank because the boat would bottom out,” DeMichiei said. “You couldn't get the boats we have close to the shoreline.”

The benefit of the hovercraft will be in shallow water rescues, such as Chartiers Creek and near Washington's Landing, Muoio said.

“It's designed for ice operations and marsh lands,” he said. “If someone needs to be extricated, and we can't get a helicopter or a Med-Evac in there, we can get the hovercraft in there.”

Ross County, Ohio, Sheriff George Lavender said he has used his department's hovercraft about eight or nine times in the eight years the department has had it.

“They are very good to get into places,” he said. “It could not be any better for ice, and it goes across mud very well.”

He said it doesn't perform over rough water, but he considers it a good investment “if you have the money.”

“It has served us well, but you have to know where to use it,” Lavender said.

The hovercraft will augment River Rescue's airboat for ice rescues, DeMichiei said.

“This is a lot more flexible,” he said. “It can do a lot more than the airboat.”

In its seven years of service, Muoio said, he can remember police and paramedics using the airboat once to rescue a woman who jumped from a bridge into the icy river. With speed, the boat can get up and glide over ice that's 2 inches thick, he said. But there are risks to rescuing someone with the boat. The last time the airboat was used in service was Feb. 21 when a barge struck the Hot Metal Bridge, said city public safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler.

“You're pushing the ice, and you can pinch that person in between two pieces of ice and cause more damage,” Muoio said. “And the pressure can cause a wake.”

Frigid temperatures this winter caused the rivers to ice over, giving the crew chances to train with the boat.

“We use cans as simulated people to show them to keep the speed down,” Muoio said. “There is a need for it. The Allegheny freezes.”

Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or



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