Safety concerns force Ill. firefighters to halt river search

By Jeremy Gorner
The Chicago Tribune

WHEELING, Ill. — After looking for about 3 1/2 hours Sunday morning for a man who had fallen into the Des Plaines River the previous day, officials postponed the search after water conditions were deemed too hazardous.

Wheeling Fire Department officials and Cook County Forest Preserve District police combed the shoreline without finding the man and plan to continue searching Monday, said Steve Mayberry, a spokesman for the forest preserve police.

The search began at 5:30 a.m. and was called off about 9 a.m., Mayberry said. Forest preserve police searched the shoreline as part of their regular patrols Sunday, he said.

Wheeling Fire Department Lt. Steve Mella said his department called off the search Sunday and was not able to send in divers because of the rising levels of the river and the amount of debris in the water from the recent storms.

On Sunday, teams searched along a 1 1/2 -mile stretch of the river with sonar equipment and foot patrols, Mella said. Their main focus was south of a dam near an unincorporated section of Wheeling.

Officials were not hopeful.

"Overhead dams like this are called drowning machines. They're extremely dangerous. You get the hydraulic effect, which pulls people in," Mella said.

The man, identified as Gavino Alvarez-Diego from nearby Prospect Heights, fell in while walking with another man along the river near Milwaukee Avenue and Hintz Road about 5:30 p.m., Mayberry said.

Alvarez-Diego had lived in Prospect Heights for about two years and has a wife and children in Mexico, officials said.

A number of witnesses saw Alvarez-Diego fall in, Mayberry added.

The search effort included Wheeling Fire Department personnel in boats that were stationed in the river near Milwaukee and Hintz, and a Cook County sheriff's police helicopter.

Alvarez-Diego apparently was attending a picnic with the other man near the east side of the river and went into the water just north of a dam, Mayberry said.

"Witnesses saw [Alvarez-Diego] pop up in the water" before going back under south of the dam, Mayberry said.

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