A body sighted floating down the Grande Ronde River — last seen near Riverside Park in La Grande — has not yet been found.
Wednesday, after 1 p.m., the body of a white male passed under the North Spruce Street bridge facedown before disappearing in the rapids of the Grande Ronde River. The search and rescue efforts continued from that time on until about 6:30 p.m.
Unless more details come to light or another sighting emerges, recovery efforts for this case will not continue, according to the La Grande Rural Fire Department and Union County’s Search and Rescue team.
There has been widespread speculation over the man’s reasoning for entering the river, but nothing is certain.
An Oregon State Police trooper was pursuing a vehicle at 1:43 a.m. Wednesday and found it unattended. Later, they spotted the suspect walking on the side of I-84. When the trooper tried to make contact, the man jumped into the river, according to OSP Public Information Captain Tim Fox.
Fox said it is not clear if these two cases are related, and until the body is found, state police cannot confirm nor deny the man in the river is also the man who eluded police earlier in the morning.
La Grande Fire Chief Les Thomas said the man in the water near Riverside Park was “obviously deceased” when he briefly surfaced.
Thomas was in the middle of setting up a rescue plan with volunteers from Union County Search and Rescue and La Grande Rural Fire Department when the body passed beneath the North Spruce Street bridge, the intended rescue location. Ropes were thrown from both sides of the river to attempt to catch the body, but rescuers were unable to capture it before it entered particularly dangerous rapids.
Over the next five hours, several local and state agencies teamed up to perform the recovery operation. La Grande Rural Fire Department, La Grande Fire Department, La Grande Police, Union County Sheriff’s Office, Union County Search and Rescue, Oregon State Police, and Wallowa County Search and Rescue were all present.
Most of the search took place in the rapids near Riverside Park because the body had not been spotted floating downstream or even passing through the rough waters. However, in case the body had moved down the river, law enforcement personnel were looking out from the Highway 82 bridge in Island City, according to Nick Vora, Union County SAR lieutenant.
“The reason we looked (near Riverside Park) was because based on obstructions in the water, there was a high likelihood a person floating through there would have gotten caught,” he said.
Remnants of a demolished bridge remain just below the surface of the Grande Ronde River in that particular spot, littering the riverbed with large blocks of concrete with protruding rods of rebar. Vora said this, combined with the high water level and low water temperature, made for an extremely hazardous search and rescue mission.
“The water right now is extremely cold and has a fairly high flow rate,” he said. “In the summertime, in that area where we were working, someone could walk across the river without having a problem, but with the snowmelt this time of year, there is a lot of water moving through there.”
The Wallowa County Swift Water Team, a branch of the county’s search and rescue team, offered their support and expertise on the scene with trained swift water technicians who probed the waters with long yellow rods, hoping to find the body.
Craig Kretschmer, La Grande Rural Fire chief, said the swift water team was paramount to the combined efforts of Wednesday’s recovery operation.
“The Wallowa County Swift Water Team was a huge asset and gave us better equipment and more trained personnel to get in the rapids and do a thorough search,” he said. “Whenever you get the chance to work with agencies like that, (you realize) it’s a blessing to know they’re out there and available if we ever need them again.”
While the swift water team was at work in its bright red boat, members from Union County’s SAR team controlled the vessel with ropes and pulleys as LGFD members watched from above in the basket of a fire truck ladder that had been extended over the rapids, and a marine deputy from the Union County Sheriff’s Office, a marine deputy from the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office and a SAR volunteer waited downstream in a jet boat owned by the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office to ensure the rescuers’ safety.
“There weren’t any activities that were just search and rescue,” Vora said. “Everything was a combination effort by all teams involved.”
The teamwork from all agencies made for an “almost seamless” search and rescue operation in regard to the safety of the rescuers, Thomas said, even though they were not able to recover the body.
“All of the agencies worked really well together. We even talked about having additional training in the future,” he said. “We came up with a plan, and everybody went home safe.”
Contact Amanda Weisbrod at 541-963-3161 or at email@example.com .