Fisherman’s body recovered from Lake Springfield; search continues for second man

April 04, 2011 at 09:37 PM

The body of a Riverton man was recovered from the bottom of Lake Springfield Monday night, a day after a small fishing boat carrying the man and a friend capsized amid high winds and choppy waters.

The identity of the man, whose body was found in 12 to 16 feet of water between Maine Point and Virginia Lane in a southwestern section of the lake, wasn’t released by authorities, but the man’s mother, Sheila Chernis, confirmed his identity as Travis Christopher, 26, of Riverton.

The body was found with the aid of sonar and removed by a diver about 5:30 p.m. Monday, according to Capt. Joe Morelock of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Conservation Police.

Sangamon County Coroner Susan Boone pronounced the man dead, and the man’s relatives were notified, Morelock said.

The search for the second man, a 25-year-old from Springfield, will continue this morning, Morelock said.

Authorities believe the 14-foot-long motorboat carrying the men capsized in the area where the first victim was found.

The men last were seen in the boat by a lake-area homeowner about noon near Maple Grove Lane and Marine Island, according to Greg Surbeck, assistant chief of the Springfield Fire Department.

The temperature at the time was 75 degrees, and winds gusting to 40-50 mph were producing waves 4 to 5 feet tall.

Foul play is not suspected, and there is no evidence alcohol was involved, Surbeck and Neale said.

50-degree water

No one saw the boat capsize, Surbeck said, but the craft was found floating upside-down at the shore near Virginia Lane at 9:37 p.m. Sunday by an Illinois Department of Natural Resources helicopter that was part of the search.

Also found floating in the water were two life preservers and two jackets.

Springfield police Lt. Bill Neale said the men apparently weren’t wearing personal flotation devices.

The boat, with a 25-horsepower engine, “would have been a small boat for two adults on a calm day, let alone the kind of conditions they had (Sunday),” Surbeck said.

The water is 12 to 18 feet deep in the part of the lake where authorities believe the boat capsized.

Surbeck said both men apparently knew how to swim, but because the lake’s temperature was cool — 50 degrees or less — hypothermia could have killed them within minutes if they didn’t drown.

“It was an unfortunate accident,” Surbeck said.

About 50 people from state and local police, fire and emergency-response agencies participated in the search Monday.

Sonar search

The two men were part of a new fishing club that was holding an unofficial fishing tournament on the lake Sunday, Surbeck said.

Five or six boats were involved, he said, adding that the contest wasn’t connected with a fishing tournament held on the lake Sunday by the Champaign County Bassmasters to benefit Shriner’s Children’s Hospital.

The unofficial contest began about 6:30 a.m. Sunday. The men entered the lake from a public boat launch at Center Park Harbor on the lake’s east side, Surbeck said.

They were seen by others in the contest between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. Sunday near Lincoln Greens Golf Course, he said.

Organizers of the contest called it off an hour early, at 1 p.m., because of the high winds, but organizers realized later in the afternoon that the two men hadn’t returned, Surbeck said.

The organizers contacted Lake Springfield security, provided by City Water, Light and Power, about 6:30 p.m. Sunday, and the search began shortly afterward with boats and the DNR helicopter, Surbeck said.

Divers and boats equipped with sonar searched the area of the lake between Marine Island and Virginia Lane on Monday amid temperatures in the mid-40s and wind gusts up to 35 mph.

‘All-around good kid’

Travis Christopher’s stepfather, Ed Chernis, 53, of Riverton, said Christopher was a longtime restaurant cook but lately was unemployed. He was planning to move to California.

“He had just joined this fishing club,” Chernis said, adding that the fishing boat was owned by Christopher’s friend, a fellow former Riverton High School student who also is missing.

Christopher was “just an all-around good kid,” Chernis said. He enjoyed fishing, riding a four-wheeler and playing the popular “Call of Duty” video game, his relatives said.

Chernis said Christopher normally didn’t wear a life jacket while fishing.

Sheila Chernis, 52, sat in a car Monday afternoon with other relatives near a command post set up by authorities on the east side of Lindsay Bridge.

She said her son had expressed “mixed emotions” before the contest because he knew it was going to be windy on the lake. But he wanted to be in the fishing club, he was a good swimmer, and it was the first contest of the season, she and her husband said.

“I appreciated everyone out there searching,” she said through tears. “I think they’re definitely doing the best that they can.”

Dean Olsen can be reached at 788-1543.