Boatman: A boring job someone has to do under Kittanning bridge
As workers dangle from safety harnesses high up along the edge of the Kittanning Citizens Bridge, a lone boatman watches from below — ready to offer help should one of them fall into the icy waters of the Allegheny River.
Charles “Chukka” Goldinger, 77, of West Kittanning hunkers down with binoculars, his cellphone and a portable radio in his 16-foot fishing boat to keep an eye on the workers who are painting and repairing the bridge in a project scheduled to continue through October.
“I'm the troll under the bridge,” he said from his spot downriver from the John P. Murtha amphitheater on the nearby banks of the river.
Goldinger, who is a retired coal miner, is the West Kittanning fire chief. He started his watch on Monday and will be at the ready during work hours for the duration of the project.
He was hired for the boatman position by Advanced Painting Systems, Pittsburgh — the company contracted by PennDOT to do the bridge work. Every weekday at about 7:30 a.m. he puts the boat in the river and has to stay alert until about 4:30 p.m. when he goes ashore.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations mandate that someone be in the water at the bridge project to help with rescue should the need arise. His job is to get to the fallen worker in the icy waters before hypothermia sets in.
“I have about two-and-a-half minutes to get to them,” Goldinger said.
A life ring, life jacket and about 100 feet of rope are the tools he has stowed on board to assist him. So far, they have remained stowed, and he admits that for the most part, the job he has is pretty boring.
He keeps tabs on changing river conditions by checking in periodically with fire chiefs in East Franklin and Washington townships who are monitoring the moving ice floes.
“It's not safe out here for everyday boating,” he said. “When the river's high and ice is coming down, it's not safe.”
This is Goldinger's second time working as a boatman — his first was two years ago during the Judge Graff Bridge rehabilitation project on the span that carries Route 422 over the Allegheny River in North Buffalo and Manor townships.
When a boatman was needed for the Citizens Bridge project, Kittanning Borough Streets Supervisor Jim Mechling knew who to call: “Chukka.”
“Chukka has his own boat, and if I need him to do something, he's always there,” Mechling said.
And after a lifetime of boating in the area, Goldinger knows his way around the river. But he said a houseboat is his usual mode of transport on the Allegheny.
While he's on his boatman's watch, Goldinger will be sticking with the fishing boat until the weather warms up.
When that finally happens, he plans to work his shift on his pontoon boat — which will give him an opportunity to walk around and stretch his legs while on the river.
But until then, Goldinger lies low in his boat, keeping out of the wind and staying warm while bundled up in layers of clothing.
“I'm just sitting in my boat watching icebergs go by,” he said.
Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or email@example.com.