published Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Jasper man Christopher Heaton drowns in rescue attempt

Authorities say the Tennessee River's current was swift when 25-year-old Christopher Heaton jumped in the water to rescue his girlfriend.

Heaton, of Jasper, Tenn., had driven to Bridgeport, Ala., to meet his girlfriend Tuesday evening. He arrived at their meeting place near a boat ramp to see her car sinking as it was swept down the river, said Jackson County Chief Deputy Rocky Harnen. Witnesses told police Heaton immediately dived into the water.

But the woman -- whom police haven't named -- escaped from the car and was helped from the water by fisherman at a ramp only 20 yards away, Harnen said.

"He may not have seen her," Harnen said.

Heaton drowned, his body found nearly five hours later at the bottom of the river, 30 to 40 yards from the bank, Harnen said.

Family members said in an obituary notice that Heaton believed a small child was trapped in the car. Investigators found a child's car seat in the vehicle when it was pulled from the river.

Harnen said investigators don't know why the woman drove her truck to the edge of the boat ramp.

He said the woman told police she saw Heaton jump into the river but couldn't tell if he saw her in the water.

As a witness called 911, Heaton's head bobbed up twice and then disappeared, police said.

The river was at its normal height Tuesday. One of the nearest dams had been draining high water from the January rains, Tennessee Valley Authority officials said.

The woman was taken to Highlands hospital in Scottsboro, Ala., where she was treated for bruises and hypothermia, Harnen said.

Heaton, who graduated from Chattanooga State Community College, had two young sons, according to his obituary.

Visitation will be today from 4 to 9 p.m. CST at Tate Funeral home. A 10 a.m. CST funeral service is set for Friday.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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