By Juan Perez Jr., Rosemary Regina Sobol and Jeremy Gorner
7:05 a.m. CST, January 14, 2014
Jose Cuevas was taking a stroll with his roommate on the Chicago Riverwalk after catching a late-night movie when he heard faint screams.
â€œHelp, help, help!” Cuevas said he heard a male voice cry out in the darkness. Cuevas asked him where he was.
A diver with the Chicago Police Marine Unit jumps in the river as the search for a missing woman continues near 429 E. North Water Street in Chicago. â€”Â Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune, Jan. 13, 2014
In the minutes after Cuevas called 911, rescue workers pulled two men from the icy water not far from Lake Shore Drive. According to relatives and a law enforcement source, Ken Hoang, 26, of St. Paul, Minn., was later pronounced dead at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The second man remained hospitalized Monday. The third victim, a woman, was still missing Monday night and presumed dead.
Hoang’s younger brother, David, said his brother left Sunday with friends for a road trip to New Jersey but had stopped in Chicago for a quick visit. Police said they learned from the lone survivor that Hoang was taking photos of the icy Chicago River about 12:05 a.m. Monday when he dropped his cellphone onto the ice, stepped down to retrive it and fell into the water. His two companions, a 21-year-old woman and a 23-year-old man, stepped onto the ice to try to assist him but fell in as well.
â€œIt’s such a waste of life,â€ David Hoang, 23, said from the family home in Minnesota.
Just last month a frighteningly similar incident took place a few blocks away when a woman visiting from Dallas accidentally slipped into the river near the Michigan Avenue bridge in the early morning hours of Dec. 17. Alisha Garnett, 30, was pulled from the river about 4:15 a.m. and pronounced dead about an hour later at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The Cook County medical examiner’s office said it was awaiting toxicology tests at the time.
As he walked along the river early Monday, Cuevas, a truck driver who lives in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, said he thought he heard someone yelling but that his roommate, Luis Bertrand, 42, hadn’t noticed anything. But then the cries for help grew louder.
â€œPlease hurry, my friend is dying. Please, I can’t hold on any longer,â€ Cuevas said he heard the man yell out. â€œMy girlfriend is in the water, and I don’t know where she’s at.”
As Cuevas rushed to the 400 block of McClurg Court to give the 911 dispatcher the location, he said Bertrand remained by the river and tried to comfort the voice in the dark.
After police, fire boats and two ambulances arrived, Cuevas said he saw workers pull two people from the water near the Columbus Drive bridge.
Police found the 21-year-old woman’s purse near where she went into the water. The search for her body continued throughout much of the day before being called off after 6 p.m.
Late Monday night, the hospitalized victim’s Facebook account added this entry: â€œLife’s too short. I hope no one would ever have to go through something so unfortunate such as what has happened.â€ That victim was listed in fair condition Monday night at Presence St. Joseph Hospital, spokeswoman Linda O’Dwyer said.
The Police Department’s marine unit focused its recovery efforts Monday near the eastern edge of River Esplanade Park that abuts tony Streeterville neighborhood homes on the river’s north shore. On Monday morning, dog walkers occasionally stepped from neighboring condos, ducking under a red strip of police tape erected to keep onlookers away before gazing back at the divers’ work.
Jagged panes of broken ice crowded much of the river’s surface. One diver who navigated the gaps of murky water said its temperatures were barely above freezing. The afternoon’s sunlight didn’t help.
Underwater, he said, â€œvisibility is zero.â€
The park is lined with metal barriers that block pedestrian access to the water. Large signs scattered along the fence warn of the park’s 11 p.m. closing time.
Piles of dirty slush surrounded the barrier’s base â€” slick footing for anyone attempting to lean in for a better view of the river or climb over and down onto a narrow wooden embankment mounted closer to the water’s surface.
David Hoang said he was awakened about 2:30 a.m. by his sister, Kathy, alerting him to the tragedy.
According to Hoang, his family emigrated from Vietnam when he and his siblings were youngsters, settling in St. Paul.
On his LinkedIn profile, Ken Hoang described himself as â€œinquisitive and unorthodox.â€
David Hoang said his brother loved technology and playing online role-playing games. He became an active member of the news-oriented social media site Reddit.
â€œI think one of his biggest enjoyments was browsing Wikipedia,â€ David Hoang said. â€œI would find him reading about politics, physics, anything and everything. This guy was just a bank of trivia knowledge. He loved it.â€
Ken Hoang studied at the University of Minnesota but didn’t graduate, his brother said. He landed a job at a Wells Fargo office in Bloomington, Minn., and was doing well, he said. He was planning to return to school to capitalize on his success at work.
â€œHe was an extremely intelligent individual,â€ David Hoang said. â€œAnd I sometimes told him he was wasting his talent by being complacent, but he was really turning that around. The complacency was disappearing. Things were really coming together for him.â€
Tribune reporter Peter Nickeas contributed.