A Columbus man was unable to save his friend after the two went kayaking on the flooded Flatrock River and the swift current capsized one of the boats.
Searchers spent most of Sunday combing the river for Enrique Quinonez, 27, of Kalamazoo, Mich., whose kayak overturned at about 11:20 a.m. Sunday near the Eighth Street bridge close to Indianapolis Road and Mill Race Center.
Quinonez was kayaking with Alex Cruz, 27, of Columbus. Cruz, a Cummins Inc. employee, had invited Quinonez to Columbus for the weekend. Although Quinionez is from Kalamazoo, most of his family, including his fiancee, are in Miami, and they have been notified about the accident.
The two got into Sun Dolphin kayaks on the east side of the bridge and were only on the water for a few minutes before Quinonez’s kayak capsized in the swift current, said Jet Quillen, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
Neither man was wearing a life vest, and Quinonez could not swim, Quillen said.
Cruz jumped out of his kayak and grabbed Quinonez by the hood of his coat, dragging him through the muddy floodwater to a tree near the bank. Cruz then grabbed a tree next to him, Quillen said. Cruz told investigators he saw Quinonez lose his grip on the tree and slip under the water. Quinonez did not resurface, Cruz told investigators.
The Columbus man swam to the shoreline yelling for help. A passerby called 911 for him about 11:27 a.m., Quillen said.
Cruz remained at the scene, as Columbus police, firefighters, Bartholomew County Sheriff’s deputies and the Department of Natural resources sent six boats into the water to search for Quinonez. The helicopter was piloted by Jim Ogilvie, a special deputy with the sheriff’s department. After about an hour, Cruz left to change clothes.
The area where Quinonez disappeared had water more than 12 feet deep and was estimated to be about 40 degrees when the incident happened, Quillen said. Hypothermia would have set in within minutes in those conditions, Quillen said.
Divers from Bartholomew County Water Rescue/Recovery and Department of Natural Resources were on standby throughout the afternoon as conditions were too dangerous to allow divers into the water, Quillen said.
It was unknown how much experience the two men had as kayakers or why they chose the flooded Flatrock River for the trip.
Eric Hayes, a Columbus attorney who is an avid canoe enthusiast and is a member of the Hoosier Canoe Club, described the kayaks as recreational, commonly available at wilderness stores or Walmart. The kayaks are fairly stable, as they are flat-bottomed, Hayes said. The difficulty occurred because floodwater is so unpredictable, and inexperienced kayakers can be swept into trees or even hit trees below the water, he added.
In this case, the two men were not wearing personal flotation devices and did not have the proper gear for kayaking in cold water, Hayes said.
Responders were focusing their efforts on the area near where Quinonez disappeared under the water, Quillen said. There’s a lot of debris he could have gotten caught in, Quillen added.
Department of Natural Resources brought in an underwater sonar device that could be operated from their boats to try to find Quinonez’s body. Two DNR officers conducting the sonar search had difficulty getting the device to the bottom of the flooded river because of the strong current. Searchers also were using poles and drag bars in the floodwater to try to locate Quinonez’s body.
Maj. Todd Noblitt of the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department said rescuers hoped to find Quinonez on Sunday, because more rainfall was expected the next two days, which could hamper the search.
The search was suspended about 8 p.m. because of darkness, but it will resume today, Quillen said.
The floodwaters involved swift water that was very dangerous, and Quillen cautioned residents to stay away from floodwater, even though it might not look like the water is moving very quickly.
The incident was the second flooding tragedy this weekend in the region. A mother and her 5-year-old son were found in a river near Gosport in Monroe County early Saturday after their car drove into floodwaters.
“It’s heartbreaking, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the families,” Quillen said. “We are here because we want to give the family closure.”
Some of the same DNR officers who worked at the Monroe County scene were in Columbus much of the day Sunday.