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Man drowns after jumping between barges on rain-swollen river

Mar 24, 2016 10:58 AM

A barge worker fell overboard into the rushing Mississippi River in northeast Arkansas and was found dead nearly two weeks later after floodwaters receded. 

Fellow Kinder Morgan employees aboard a tugboat located the man and nearly pulled him from the river shortly after he fell in after dark on Jan. 9, but his life jacket ripped off as they grabbed him, according to Mississippi County Coroner Mike Godsey. 

Godsey also works with the Blytheville Emergency Squad, which helped search for the victim, who was identified as Jerry Hooper, 38, of Hayti, Mo. An autopsy performed in Little Rock confirmed that Hooper drowned.
 
Coast Guard crews from Memphis, Tenn., participated in the search from air and water. Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the incident, said Lt. j.g. Rita Walter, who is stationed in Memphis. 

Kinder Morgan runs barges between terminals at two steel plants along the Mississippi River, and Hooper was aboard one of the barges moored near Hickman, Ark., Godsey said. Local media reported Hooper was cleaning when he fell in, although that could not be confirmed. 

“I just know he was jumping from one barge to another and fell down in between them and into the water,” Godsey said.  

Kinder Morgan issued statements to local media, but company spokesman Richard Wheatley declined to comment when reached by telephone. He referred questions about the incident to the Mississippi County Sheriff’s Office. Attempts to obtain details from the sheriff’s office were unsuccessful.
 
The Coast Guard received a report at about 2017 on Jan. 9 that a man fell overboard from the Kinder Morgan terminal at Hickman, Ark., according to Walter. The Coast Guard joined local authorities for an air and water search south of Hickman, located near Blytheville in northeast Arkansas. Kinder Morgan towboat crews searched the river immediately after the incident and for days after Hooper disappeared. 

The river was at flood stage when Hooper fell in, and search crews updated current models to account for faster water, Walter said. The Coast Guard called off the search about 24 hours after Hooper fell in. Kinder Morgan boats continued searching the river during daily runs between the two terminals, and Hooper’s body was spotted on Jan. 22. He was not wearing a life jacket when he was found. 

“He was found about a half-mile south of the boat dock where he fell off at and almost a quarter-mile up in the woods,” Godsey said. “The water, it was flood stage when he went in, and it’s gone down about 20 (feet) since then.”

Details about Hooper’s tenure with Kinder Morgan and information about survivors were not available. 

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