They’re calling him a Frenchman, but even that is uncertain. All anyone really knows is that New York’s mystery hero leaped into the icy East River to help rescue a 2-year-old girl and then disappeared into the city.
The man has not been seen since Saturday afternoon, when he helped rescue Bridget Sheriden after she plunged 20 feet into the river while visiting a tourist attraction at the South Street Seaport with her parents. Jumping into the water fully clothed, not even pausing to take his phone from his pocket, he helped Bridget’s father, David Anderson, stay afloat after he saved his daughter.
And then the mystery man climbed out of the river, got in a cab, and left.
He got a shout-out from TODAY co-hosts Matt Lauer and Ann Curry Monday, inviting him to identify himself. But even New York’s tabloid reporters haven’t been able to track the man down.
The East River is not a good place for a swim. The currents are vicious, the water isn’t exactly crystal clear, and on the first weekend in April, it’s a bone-chilling 40 degrees.
David Anderson didn’t think of any of that when the 2-year-old identified as his daughter fell in. As shocked tourists watched, Anderson jumped in the turbid water, surfaced with his daughter on his chest, and gave New Yorkers a story they’re still talking about.
All of it was caught in pictures by Eric Stringer, a freelance television producer from Long Island, who had taken advantage of Saturday’s gorgeous weather to visit the Seaport with his wife and two young children. He had just purchased a new digital SLR camera, and brought it along to try it out.
“We were going to the circus. We said, ‘Let’s go down to the Seaport. It’s a beautiful day out,’ ” Stringer said Sunday in an appearance on TODAY.
Suddenly, beauty was replaced by desperation.
“I heard a loud splash, immediately followed by a woman screaming,” Stringer said.
Bridget Sheriden had fallen some 20 feet into the water while walking up the gangplank of the Peking, a four-masted windjammer that is one of the attractions at the Seaport Museum. She quickly dipped beneath the surface of the frigid water.
Leaping into actionStringer told The New York Daily News his first thought was to jump in after the girl, but as he was starting to empty his pockets, he saw another man beat him to it. The man was Anderson, a tourist from California and a former member of the ski patrol at Colorado’s Vail Ski Resort, and the girl’s father. He emptied his pockets, stood for a moment staring at the water to locate the little girl, then dropped in feet first — “like a pencil,” Stringer said.
It was at that point that the mystery man, identified only as a French tourist, also jumped in and moved to help when Anderson surfaced with Bridget on his chest.
“He had her in his arms. He was really focused on keeping her head up,” Stringer told TODAY. “She was unresponsive at first. I couldn’t tell if she was breathing or not. It looked like her eyes were closed, and she was kind of motionless.
“There was another gentleman who was in the water. He looked like he had everything on. He probably had his phone in his pocket. He was sort of straddling the father, keeping him afloat.”
At that point Bridget started crying, and everyone knew she would be OK. But it was a near thing: The pictures Stringer took show that the girl was already pale — almost blue — from her exposure to the cold water.
Other tourists leaped into action, climbing down the pier to form a human chain. One man was able to take hold of her and pass her up to another man who handed her to her mother, who wrapped her in a jacket.
“It was a good 15-20 feet down,” Stringer said. “The father held the girl up.”
‘Always a hero’
The Daily News tracked down Steve Clark, who had worked with Anderson on the ski patrol at Vail a decade ago, before Anderson moved to California. Clark recognized Anderson from the photos and video Stringer shot.
“I’m shocked but not surprised ... He would do that in a heartbeat,” Clark told the newspaper. “He did so many great things here, always helping people. He has always been a hero.”
Stringer’s wife, Jeanne, had called 911 while her husband first documented the drama and then joined in the rescue effort. Stringer said first responders were on the scene within minutes. Bridget was taken to a local hospital to be checked out. She was uninjured and left with her father a few hours later.
While Bridget was being tended to, someone found a rope to throw down to help Anderson climb out. The mystery Frenchman got out on his own and left without ever identifying himself.
“Everybody was just amazed that she was breathing and that she didn’t hit the boat or the bulkhead on the way down,” said Stringer, who remained impressed by how quickly and efficiently ordinary people acted together to save the little girl.
“It was just a testament to how great everyone is, that everyone just jumped right in,” he said.