Fire crews rescue uncooperative man floating down Arkansas River

For more than a week, the Wichita Fire Department’s water rescue team has taken advantage of the unusually strong Arkansas River current to conduct drills.

But most of that training dealt with helping people who wanted to be pulled from the water.

The team faced a different scenario Friday morning as rescuers tried to pull a man floating down the river on a child’s pool toy who didn’t want to be rescued.

After pushing away ropes dangled from bridges and resisting other rescue efforts for nearly 50 minutes, Richard J. Hamm, 36, was pulled into a rescue boat shortly before 9 a.m., authorities say.

Police took him into custody and booked him into the Sedgwick County Jail about an hour later on suspicion of violating two city ordinances, authorities said.

“Right now, the river really isn’t a good place to be messing around, even boating,” said police Sgt. Mark Jackson. “I was watching the water rescue boat, and they were having difficulty keeping a true course with the flow of the river.”

Heavy rains have pushed the river’s level way up and created a fast-moving current. That has made for an ideal setting for fire crews to practice water rescues, but the scene that unfolded Friday was unusual.

Police aren’t sure where Hamm entered the water, but an officer working an accident on the Douglas Avenue Bridge spotted him in the river about 8:20 a.m.

“He had both hands extended over his head, waving them back and forth in what we determined to be a universal distress signal,” Jackson said.

The fire rescue team was called and crews “leap-frogged” along the river to keep up with Hamm as he floated downstream on a pink noodle, acting Fire Marshal Stuart Bevis said.

After learning he was going to be arrested, Hamm told rescue crews he wasn’t going to come out of the water, police Lt. Doug Nolte said.

Hamm resisted as a rescue team on Jet-Skis approached him, and pushed away ropes that were dangled from bridges. He even managed to keep going as he went through the rapids of the dam at the Lincoln Street Bridge.

A rescue boat finally was able to pick up Hamm between the Pawnee and John Mack bridges, on South Broadway.

Hamm’s combative nature made the rescue difficult and put the crews’ lives at risk, Bevis said.

“There’s a lot of logs and debris in there,” Bevis said. “He could have gotten clocked.”

Trisha Epps, who lives near the river, said she saw Hamm floating and thought crews were just conducting another exercise. She watched him as he rounded the bend toward the Pawnee Bridge.

“He seemed like he was having a good time floating on his pink floaty,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Epps said the man even waved.

“I thought to myself, ‘That looks like fun,’” she said, “but I think he picked the wrong day to do it.”

Hamm violated two city ordinances, police said. One prevents swimming, wading or bathing in the Arkansas River between Seneca and the Lincoln Street Bridge. The other closes the river to all watercraft while the water level is so high.

“And then, of course, when you disobey police there are consequences for that, too,” Jackson said.

Allegations against Hamm on the jail log included interfering with a law enforcement officer and failure to comply.

Hamm was already wanted on three outstanding warrants for obstructing the legal process, Nolte said.

Hamm was paroled from prison on Monday after being incarcerated off and on since 1996, mostly for convictions of theft, burglary and aggravated robbery.