COLUMBUS, Ga. — The search continues for the most recent drowning victim in the Chattahoochee River. Rescue teams started searching under the 13th St. Bridge Tuesday morning around 7 a.m. This comes after Columbus Fire and EMS officials told News 3 they believed a 23-year-old Hispanic man with military service drowned in the river Monday night around 6 p.m.
Ronnie Pearce was fishing at the time, when he witnessed an all too common sight on the Chattahoochee.
“One of them hollered ‘help help help!’ I had told them. “I said ‘hey man! Y’all don’t need to go out there. The water is too rough.’ So he looked at me just like this. I told him the river was dangerous. He said I know how to swim.”
But even the strongest of swimmers can fall prey to the swift river.
“It was just like that, just a snap of the finger,” Pearce said.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Fort Benning Police, Columbus Fire and EMS, and other search crews scanned the river with helicopters, looking for any sign of a body. As many as 35 people are looking for the man. Columbus Fire and EMS Battalion Chief Donald Jones says Georgia Power cut down on the water flow in the river to help in the search.
“Well it would take the current away and that way we can put more divers in and they can search a wider area,” Jones said. “Right now the divers can only search the little eddies here. That’s where the water turns around. They cannot get out in the current. It’s too dangerous for the divers.”
Crews had about a four hour window before river flow normalized. The flow had to pick back up to prevent potential flooding upstream.
“This is a safe area swim if you do it right.,” Whitewater Express President and CEO Dan Gilbert explained.
Gilbert took News 3 to the spot where the man reportedly fell into the water. He says the man and a couple of his friends were in an eddy not wearing life jackets.
“If someone gets in an eddy like this, and they’re not familiar with it, they may struggle against the water,” Gilbert said. “You really can’t beat this water. You have to go with the water. The water is very powerful.”
Gilbert says had the man been wearing a life jacket, he would have simply floated in a circle.
“If you go play football, you put on a helmet,” Gilbert said. “If you get in a car, you put on your seat belt. If you get in the water, you gotta wear a life jacket.”
Search crews recently got new side sonar technology. However, it has not sped up the search in this case.
“So far it hasn’t helped any. It does real well in smooth water, but this water turns its teeth, and we can’t use it that well,” Chief Jones said.
Gilbert says the message needs to sink in that people cannot play with unpredictable waters.
“People get upset with you when you tell them what to do. Something like this reinforces the importance. And we want to make it as safe as possible. We’re going to keep struggling trying to get the message out.”
Crews will resume the search for the missing body at 7 a.m. Wednesday.