KINGSBURY — A man died Friday when he fell into the Champlain Canal while painting a bridge for the state.
A crew of contractors, working for the state Department of Transportation, was painting the Smiths Basin bridge at Route 149, next to Lock 9.
They had painted most of the bridge and were working underneath it, standing on a platform tied to the bridge by a series of ropes and cables.
One cable broke and the platform suddenly tilted, throwing five workers into the water. At least four other painters did not fall in, and one of them quickly dialed 911.
First responders arrived within minutes, with the first person arriving two minutes after the 911 call, according to Washington County Director of Public Safety Glen Gosnell. Dispatchers sent three dive teams to the scene, and State Police also quickly arrived with a dive team.
“They assisted individuals out of the water,” Gosnell said.
But they only found four of the five painters.
Dive teams spent nearly 90 minutes scouring the canal, while a helicopter circled overhead, searching for any sight of the man, Rahssan Smith, 41, of Albany.
He was eventually found at the bottom of the canal, directly under the bridge, Washington County Undersheriff John Winchell said. The 911 call was made at 11:31 a.m.; Smith’s body was found at 12:58 p.m.
“We wish there was a better outcome,” Winchell said.
Smith’s body was taken to Albany Medical Center Hospital for an autopsy. Officials want to know whether he died from drowning or from the fall. One of the surviving painters had a chest injury from the fall.
The other three surviving painters were all being treated for exposure, Gosnell said.
All four were transported to Glens Falls Hospital with non life-threatening injuries.
Two divers from the dive teams, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to speak to the press, said Smith likely could not swim and was so muscular that he was not naturally buoyant. He may also have been wearing steel-toed boots.
The water was 46 degrees. While there was only a “nominal” current, and the water is believed to be only about 10 feet deep, visibility in the canal was poor. Divers said they had to feel their way through the water.
DOT officials were deeply upset about the accident, with one manager rushing to the scene looking distraught.
“It’s a tough day for the agency,” said DOT spokesman Bryan Viggiani. “Obviously, our thoughts and prayers are with the individuals here.”
OSHA inspectors were expected to arrive later Friday to begin an investigation into what went wrong. Later in the day, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office announced that it was believed a cable holding up the platform had broken.