You Hear the Splash, then the Screams

On May 23, 2009, Amanda Stott-Smith drove her two young children — Trinity, age seven, and Eldon, four — to the Sellwood Bridge in Portland, Oregon. It was 1:20 in the morning when a couple living near the base of the bridge heard the splash, then the screams. They called 911. This is their story, adapted from my book TO THE BRIDGE, to be published by Little A in February 2018.

Sellwood is in the southeast quadrant of Portland, Oregon. It’s a nice neighborhood. People keep up their lawns without being snotty about it. Businesses run toward affordable luxuries: artisan cheese, yoga studios. It is through this neighborhood that Amanda Stott-Smith drove her children on the way to the bridge.

“I think of it every day; I never go over that bridge without thinking about it,” says Pati Gallagher. Her voice raspy from a recent cold, she is drinking tea in the gourmet kitchen of her condominium, a residence as close as any in Portland to the Sellwood Bridge. Her patio is three good strides from the river, which on a sunny afternoon in mid-October is tennis court-green and moving slowly upstream.

“It goes that way,” says Gallagher, pointing south. “There’s a lot of argument about that in this house, because my husband says, that’s downriver.”

Gallagher laughs, a laugh that turns to a spirited wheeze, even the wheeze letting the listener know, this gal is from New York City.

view from the Gallagher’s patio

“But anyway, it changes,” Gallagher says, of the river, which for the record, flows north. “The guy across the street, who’s a fisher for years and years, he says the salmon wait right outside of the [bridge’s stanchions], where there’s no current, and they wait, they feel — sniff, whatever — that the water is cold enough, all right? So I told the guy, I’ll bet you there were boulders here at one point, so they know, this is a safe place.”

Portland felt like a safe place for Gallagher and husband Dan in 2004. They had been living in Brooklyn, in DUMBO, an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, in a loft whose river view was near identical to the one they have now but for the skyline.

“Everybody teases us. They’re like, what’s with the bridge thing?” she says. “But I mean, after 9/11, the view changed pretty drastically.”

Gallagher was working a catering gig in midtown Manhattan when the planes hit the World Trade Centers. She and seven of her employees walked the five miles back to Brooklyn.

“We got to the Manhattan Bridge and I said, ‘Do you guys want to come over?’ I said, ‘I have food; I have vodka,’” she says. They all came. They sat at her windows and watched.

“But I didn’t go near the windows,” she says. “It was like, no, no, no, no, no.”

In the months following the attack, she and Dan “felt detached from the city.” They started to think about leaving.

“There are only a few cities I would move to, from a food standpoint,” says Gallagher, who works in the specialty food business. “When Dan said there was a [job] opportunity for him in Portland, I went, Portland — wheeee!”

On May 22, 2009, the couple dined at a restaurant called Beast. The pre-set five-to-seven course menu was meat-heavy, served with many wines.

“We got home at twenty after twelve, completely overstuffed, no way we should be horizontal at that point,” says Gallagher. “So I said, ‘Let’s sit up a little while.” Gallagher had poured herself a Limoncello. Dan drank wine. They sat on the patio looking at the water.

“We were kind of comatose. We were there about a half-hour when we heard a splash, and I mean, a weird splash,” she says. “Come, I’ll show you.”

Gallagher hops off a kitchen stool and has me follow her to the patio. From here, one might easily sidearm a rock into the river. Which, Gallagher says, people do.

“Kids will throw big rocks in the water. Boulders,” she says. “They pick them up and throw them, or kids climb on the bridge. So when we heard the weird loud splash, I went, ‘what the…? What are these kids doing now?’”

If her mind told her it was kids fooling around, her body told her something else. “It was horrible sounding, and I jumped up,” she says, recalling how the sound alone made her think she should call the police.

“Then she started to scream, ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ really, just horrible,” Gallagher says. “I ran. I ran and got the phone. I didn’t know whether to call Sellwood police or 911 and Dan screams, ‘911!!’ He was at the edge of the patio, going, ‘WHERE ARE YOU!’ Screaming for her.”

Gallagher reached a 911 operator.

“I said, ‘there’s someone in the water!’ I was shaking and the woman was calmly trying to ask me, north, south, and the screaming is going on, and I said, ‘You could hear that, right?!’”

Gallagher holds an imaginary phone toward the river. “And she said, ‘I did hear that, ma’am.’”

Within five minutes, Gallagher saw police on the other side of the river. She saw flashlights scanning the shore. She still could not tell where the screams were coming from.

“We couldn’t see anything,” she says. “My impression was it was from the northwest side of the bridge, far on the other side. Then it got louder; she was crossing this way. And then she was much louder, like she was right here, right down here.”

Gallagher indicates the shore. In daylight, it makes sense that you could slide-slip a few feet to the river’s edge to see what was going on, to gauge if you should wade in. At night it does not look like this, or it did not that night, when it was so dark Gallagher says they could not see twenty feet ahead.

“Dan and I were like, what should we… should we go?” Gallagher says. “And Dan goes, ‘I’m going down!’ And I said, “No! Don’t. Go in. The river!’ He was like, ‘We have to do something!’ He threw on his fleece and he left.”

Gallagher again called 911.

“And I say, ‘She’s not on the west side of the river anymore; it sounds like she’s right here!’ At this point she was just…”

I am not sure Gallagher knows she has let go a moan before she says, “The water must have been so cold.”

The screaming had been going on for twenty minutes when Gallagher heard another voice, this one from a park just to the north, a woman’s voice yelling, “Where are you? Where are you?”

Gallagher called 911 a third time, to say she thought the girl in the water was headed toward the park.

“And I got excited,” she says, “because there’s this dock that sticks out there, and I thought, maybe she’ll hit it. Or, maybe that’s what she’s going for.”

Then the girl’s screams stopped. Alone in the dark on her patio, Gallagher heard nothing. Remembering this, she clears some tears from her throat.

Dan returned home. He had been at the park, he said; there were cops everywhere; he did not think there was any more he could do.

“And we started questioning ourselves,” she says. “‘Is that really what we heard? Maybe it was an animal. But it was saying, ‘help me…’” Her laugh this time is rueful.

Dan, she says, went to bed. Soon after, a police officer called, asking Gallagher if she had been the person who called 911.

“And I said, ‘I am.’ And he said, ‘I don’t have good news for you, but we did recover two children, a boy and a girl. The boy is unfortunately deceased, but the girl is alive.’ And I just…” Gallagher makes her whole body shake.

She thought that night about waking Dan up. She did not. Instead, she did what she had not done in Brooklyn as the World Trade Centers burned: she sat by the patio’s glass doors and watched.

“It looked like Fallujah,” she says. “There were helicopters, and lights shining on the dock; there were cops everywhere, cops on the bridge, cops over at the marina.”

Gallagher was supposed host a dinner party at home the night of May 23. She thought about canceling.

“Then I said, no,” she says. “It was kind of like the 9/11 thing. I need people here, normalcy, cocktails and somebody to talk to.”

During the dinner she received a phone call, from a reporter.

“She said, ‘It’s not going to hit the news until eleven o’clock, but you should know that it was the mother and they caught the mother,’” Gallagher says. “So that helped.”

Helped, she says, not so much to assign blame (“She doesn’t need everybody going after her,” Gallagher says, “like the angry mob in Frankenstein”), but because the story she had been telling herself seemed like a worse story.

“My imagination told me, it was a kidnapper, some horrible, scary predator,” she says. “And the guessing, the guessing and the grieving and the sound in my head was just… it was distracting to a detrimental point.”

Gallagher and Dan have many times tried to piece together what happened on the bridge.

“My husband’s biggest thing is: I don’t care who you are; if you’re falling, you scream,” she says. “But we heard nothing! Just the splash; it was definitely one splash; there’s no question about it. They were definitely, somehow, together.”

Gallagher believes that Trinity held on to Eldon as they went off the bridge, and continued to hold on to him. She says what she and Dan heard — the one splash only — in her mind confirms this. The image offers some filial consolation in the teeth of desperation; her sisters, she says, would not have let go of her. Still.

“I finally did read something, I don’t know where, I went down some rabbit hole [online], and they say that they believed it was the fall that killed the little boy,” she says. “I still don’t know if that’s true, but then all I can think is, now this little girl, not only does she have to live with death, but she has to live with, her little brother broke her fall. Maybe she’s alive because he broke her fall.”

I offer what comfort there can be in knowing an autopsy showed that Eldon had drowned.

“This sounds crazy, but it makes me feel a little better that I didn’t hear him die,” she says. “That’s been what’s really… eating.”

Gallagher testified before a grand jury on June 2, 2009. Trinity also testified. Less than 10 days after being dropped from the bridge, she had made a full recovery. Gallagher had very much wanted to meet her.

“And apparently, the family wanted her to meet us, but the DA stepped in and said, ‘Not now,’” she says. Others that day did meet the girl.

“And they said, ‘did you meet Trinity?’ And I said no, and they said, ‘Oh! She’s amazing! She was running around; she brought her teddy bear and was introducing it to the cops,’ and was talking to everybody. To a person, everybody was like, she is the most amazing girl!”

Which, Gallagher says, she already knew.

“Just the fact that she screamed the way she screamed,” she says. “It was freezing cold. She’s little. She’s little! My husband and I looked at each other and said, would you have kept screaming? She screamed for a really long time, in forty-something degree weather. She could have let go, to maybe save herself. She didn’t — in my head, that’s what happened. She screamed and screamed, she screamed from the moment she popped out of the water. And she just kept screaming. So to me, I can’t believe she is going to be the victim. I just can’t believe it.”

Gallagher clears her throat again. “From what everybody tells me, there’s a reason this child is alive. Whatever she’s going to do, the child she needs to have, whatever it is, there’s a reason she’s alive. Whether she can do it with all this stuff to carry…”

I tell Gallagher my sister-in-law sees Trinity as having been through the classic hero’s journey; she had been tested, had been through the very worst, and survived. Gallagher nods.

“To me, she’s this… she is a mythical creature, and she’s forever entwined in my life,” she says. “My girlfriend said; you need to follow this girl, and hopefully, I will be able to.”

She hopes, too, that people will not try to paint Trinity into the box of the victim. I mention my sister-in-law said the same thing, had said, of Trinity, “I hope instead she rages.”

Gallagher looks puzzled.

“But Nancy,” she says. “She already raged.”

You can see me read the first chapter of TO THE BRIDGE on Vimeo.

More info at nancyromm.com