When it came to rescuing a little gray cat, the firefighters, state troopers and highway workers in St. Mary's County meticulously planned everyone's role -- except for the cat's.

The plan on Wednesday evening was to close down the northbound lane of the Thomas Johnson Bridge, which carries Route 4 from St. Mary's to Calvert, and dangle a firefighter over the side to retrieve the meowing animal.

The cat had been stuck for more than a day on a concrete ledge -- 10 feet below the road surface and 45 feet above the Patuxent River -- but the feline did not want any part of the rescue. Just before 7:30 p.m., it saved itself with a belly-flop.

The small crowd below the bridge gasped as the cat hit the water, but the crew of a waiting rescue boat, deployed from Solomons Island, motored just 10 feet upriver and scooped up the jumper.

The cat was wet and hungry but unhurt. Some of the rescuers, however, were disappointed that their careful plan was so easily clawed to pieces.

This cat tale began Tuesday night when a passerby spotted the stranded kitty and left a message on the animal control answering machine, said James Wood, a St. Mary's County animal warden.

At 8:30 the next morning, Wood visited the bridge and determined that the cat had fallen through one of the expansion joints.

"Someone probably threw it out the window of their car," Wood said. He noted that three other cats had apparently been thrown from moving vehicles in St. Mary's in the previous two weeks. "I had to get it down one way or another; I just didn't quite know how."

He notified local fire officials, and about 10 a.m., David Smiley, assistant fire chief for the Bay District Volunteer Fire Department, began planning the rescue. The State Highway Administration told Smiley that its boom trucks were tied up for the next two weeks, and he knew there wasn't any way to get to the cat from below, so he settled on a plan to close part of the road and approach the cat from above.

Michael George, 20, was the one chosen to hang over the side of the bridge. As George crushed out a cigarette and prepared for the rescue, Bay District firefighter Jeff Bixby told him, "It's not worth losing your life over this cat."

A correctional officer in St. Mary's and a firefighter, George clutched a harness, a helmet and a large helping of dog food. (Evidently, he said, before heading out to the scene, rescuers were somewhat confused about whether they were rescuing a canine or feline.)

George had with him a cat-size sack to bag the critter.

Almost two dozen rescuers had assembled from the Solomons and Bay District volunteer fire departments, from St. Mary's animal control, the highway administration and the state police. An ambulance stood by in case the rescuers needed to be rescued.

Hours passed, and when a state trooper arrived on the scene at 7:15 p.m., he could not believe that everyone was going along with this elaborate rescue. His solution was simpler.

"Why don't we just shoot the damn thing?" he said. "I'll get my 700 and shoot it from Calvert."

When the cat finally jumped, he still looked perplexed and shook his head. "All for a cat? This is unreal. . . . Why didn't they try to scare it off before?"

After the cat jumped, Smiley acknowledged that the rescue might not have worked anyway.

"The truck was too wide for the bridge, and it would have taken at least an hour" once both lanes were closed, he said. "I probably wouldn't have done it."

Smiley said he would have pushed harder for the highway administration to send a truck.

Neighbor Mary Wood, who owns three cats and confesses to feeding many more, had quite a different reaction. She raced over to the scene on her bicycle after all the emergency personnel had left.

"I was in my backyard, and I heard someone say: 'It jumped. He jumped,' " she said. "I thought it was a person. Then I came over here and saw it was a cute cat."

After leaping from the Thomas Johnson Bridge into the Patuxent to evade its rescuers, a kitten strikes out for the shore, only to be snagged by a boat crew.

Bay District volunteer firefighter Jeff Bixby lugs equipment for Wednesday's intended cat rescue.

The stranded cat howls Wednesday before leaping into the Patuxent. Below, Kim Adams and James Wood examine it.