Delivering mail, saving lives aboard the J.W. Westcott

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit— In its 143rd year on the Detroit River, the J.W. Westcott Co. once again went beyond its normal mail-delivery duties and helped save lives.

This time, Senior Capt. Ryan Gazdecki helped rescue a pregnant woman, two Detroit police officers and a medic who had jumped into the water to help the woman on April 17.

It’s the third time Gazdecki has been part of life-saving efforts in his 13 seasons at the marine-based mail delivery ship — the only mail ship remaining with its own floating ZIP code.

Founded in 1874, the J.W. Westcott Co. has been contracted by the U.S. Postal Service to make deliveries since 1948, said owner Jim Hogan, and headquartered at Riverside Park since 1955.

Mostly, during its 24-hour days, the mail ship is just a mail ship, handing off mail to passing freighters on the river, said Hogan, whose family has owned the company since its founding. Counting his son, Jimmy, 32, the company is in its fifth generation in family hands, with fewer than 20 employees.

Per the terms of its contract with the Postal Service, the J.W. Westcott II operates 252 days a year, starting in the spring and ending when the ice on the Detroit River gets too thick.

The first rescue was in spring 2007, when Gazdecki was making a delivery alongside a freighter. A fisherman was in a boat and “got himself into some trouble, and didn’t realize a ship was sneaking up on him.”

The fisherman panicked, he said. He hit the gas, “jumped over the bow wake of the ship, and was ejected from the boat,” which was out of control and circling, eventually hitting the fisherman in the head.

“We were able to ram his boat and get him off-course and pull him safely back to our dock,” Gazdecki recalls.

The second was about this time of year in 2012 when Gazdecki, fresh off a midnight shift, was about to leave. A boater had a seizure and fell into the water, but between the actions of the Detroit Police Department and his, they were able to pull the man from the water.

All three rescues were in the early spring, in the time when the company opens for the season, usually in early April, and before the Detroit Fire Department’s station right next door is open for the shipping season — this year May 1.

Noting the timing of the recent save, Dave Fornell, deputy commissioner for the Detroit Fire Department, said: “Had this (incident) happened two weeks after it did, we would’ve dropped our boat down there and made the save. If it hadn’t been for the Westcott, this could’ve been a lot worse.”

It was just after 11 p.m. April 17 when Gazdecki heard the commotion in Riverside Park: a woman was in the Detroit River. There were about 20 people in the park, most of them on official business, along with fishermen. Even if he’d wanted to leave and head home to Livonia, he wouldn’t have been able to — there were too many emergency vehicles on the grounds to maneuver past. He jumped in to help.

When police found the woman, Fornell said, she was hanging on to a tree branch by her teeth because her arms had given out in the cold water. At that point, a Detroit police officer, Brian Gadwell, jumped in and pushed her to the break wall. A second officer, Steven Rauser, joined him, and a medic followed him in. All were struggling in the cold water, which Gazdecki estimates was 40-50 degrees.

Along with colleague Joe Buchanan — son of general manager Sam Buchanan, Gazdecki’s predecessor as senior captain — Gazdecki offered emergency workers “the service of our boat,” then ran to retrieve the 45-foot Huron Maid and headed west to the group.

In the end, the two had pulled the woman, the officers and the medic to safety.

Hogan returned home from playing hockey Monday night to a text from Gazdecki: “Can I call you?”

Gazdecki told his boss what had happened. It made Hogan proud.

“(Ryan) responded like a mariner is supposed to,” Hogan said. “You don’t think about it, you just act, you just do it.”

The events of that night are at once surprisingly common and a statistical rarity.

Buchanan said he’s been aware of at least a dozen lives saved by Westcott crews over his 30-year tenure and he’s taken part in several himself. Hogan has been a part of three saves, two of them jumpers from the Ambassador Bridge and one a recovery that pulled a father and three children from a boat that sank.

“It’s more of a common thing out there than people are aware of,” Hogan said. The river, Hogan said, “draws out the positive and the negative” from visitors.

“The city always found a place for us,” Hogan told The News. “When we saw the new plans for Riverside Park, we’ve been included in the renderings, so that’s a good sign,” he said with a laugh.

The company typically travels a route between Ecorse to the south and Belle Isle to the north, though it has been called to give assistance as far south as Lake Erie and as far north as Lake St. Clair. Its crews service ships at the two anchorages along the river, pilots for international ships that are passing through, and delivers mail, machinery and even groceries to boats in the area. The company owns two boats, the Westcott II and the Joseph J. Hogan, and rents the Huron Maid.

Despite cuts at the Postal Service, the Westcott company serves functions that are not easily replaced.

“This,” Hogan says while holding up his smartphone, “used to be a letter; now that’s sent as an email.”

Interpersonal communications might travel differently nowadays, but delivery of packages to nautical clients still requires boats and the crews that staff them.

“I don’t know how well a drone would do carrying a big box over the Detroit River,” Hogan said. “Everything around us has turned to ‘Star Trek,’ but we’re still running around like the ‘Flintstones.’ ”