MILWAUKEE — A 77-year-old Rhode Island man was vacationing in Milwaukee with his wife when he died in a gruesome fall as a downtown bridge opened, authorities said.
Just after noon Monday, Richard Charles Dujardin, a former religion reporter who lived in Providence, Rhode Island, was crossing the Kilbourn Avenue Bridge over the Milwaukee River with his wife, Rose-Marie, according to a report from the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Richard was looking at an iPad while walking, the report said.
Rose-Marie made it all the way across the bridge to its east side, and Richard was still in the middle of the bridge when it began to rise, according to the medical examiner.
“The lights, bells, and arms came down at each end of the bridge, however Richard was hard of hearing and it is thought that he didn’t notice them,” the report said.
Dujardin, who also walked slowly and used a hearing aid, tried to catch up to his wife when the bridge began to open, but he couldn’t make it to her in time. He grabbed onto the side railing and held on for one to two minutes as the bridge continued to rise, the report said.
He held on as the bridge deck rose to a 90-degree angle but eventually lost his grip and fell 71 feet to the concrete street behind him, the report said.
Dujardin suffered head trauma and died from his injuries at the scene, the medical examiner said.
Witnesses on Monday said police performed CPR when they responded to the scene. Paramedics also used a defibrillator to try to revive him.
The Dujardins were in Milwaukee on vacation and were staying at a hotel downtown. They were supposed to fly home Monday, the report said.
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Remote bridge operator on leave
As more details emerged Tuesday about the man’s death, questions remained as to how the bridge operator — controlling it remotely — could have missed the man on the bridge in surveillance video.
Milwaukee police on Tuesday said they did not suspect the bridge operator had committed a crime, but an investigation remained ongoing.
The medical examiner’s report said detectives were planning to interview the operator.
Jerrel Kruschke, interim commissioner of public works, said the operator “was fully trained and in his fourth year as a bridge operator having conducted hundreds of bridge openings.”
“He is currently on leave following this incident and was connected with the City’s Employee Assistance Program for counseling,” Kruschke said in a statement.
The operator must check two cameras with live footage of the bridge before opening it, the medical examiner’s report said.
“It seems weird that they wouldn’t have seen that there was still a person halfway on the bridge when they were opening it,” said Cheryl Nenn, riverkeeper for the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, an advocacy group for the Milwaukee River Basin.
About half the 20 movable bridges in the city are operated remotely, the Department of Public Works said.
Remotely operating bridges is “a safe and standard industry practice,” Kruschke said.
Nenn pointed out the thousands of annual bridge openings and said incidents like this, while tragic, are rare.
“In general, they seem to operate those bridges very efficiently and well,” she said. “I’ve never heard of something like this happening.”
Nenn said she hasn’t heard complaints about the bridge operators previously but welcomed an investigation into the safety measures in place.
“Clearly, they’re going have to examine what happened and make sure that there’s additional safety precautions to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
Nenn also noted that pedestrians should wait until the traffic gates reopen to begin crossing the bridge again. She’s noticed that sometimes pedestrians start to cross when the bridge looks like it’s down, but bridge operators need to do some final jostling.
The Kilbourn Avenue Bridge was completed in 1929. It was restored in 2008.
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Dujardin was a longtime religion reporter
Dujardin reported on religion for the Providence Journal newspaper in Rhode Island for 36 years, according to the Religion News Association.
He won the association’s lifetime achievement award in 2015 and served as its president in the 1990s.
“Dujardin traveled widely to cover Pope John Paul II, interviewed a future pope and a past U.S. president, covered Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and the Dalai Lama,” an article posted to the association’s website read.
Dujardin was born in 1944 in New York City and attended high school on Long Island and college at Fordham University.
He began working at the Providence Journal after graduation in 1966 before joining the U.S. Naval Reserve as an officer for three years. He returned to the paper and in 1977 became the religion reporter.
“Religion writing, as most of us in the field know, is a satisfying experience,” Dujardin told the Religion News Association when he received the lifetime achievement award.
“It allows us to ask important questions that most other reporters usually ignore, allowing us to ask people about their faith lives and to see what really makes them tick. As it is, a lot of motivation behind the good things people do springs from their faith and from the way they perceive God.”
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Dujardin and his wife, Rose-Marie, had six children and nine grandchildren.
In all, Dujardin worked for the Providence Journal for 47 years.
“We are deeply saddened by the news of Richard Dujardin and offer our deepest sympathies and condolences to all those whose lives he touched,” executive editor David Ng said in a statement.
Elliot Hughes of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.