Failure to find drowning victim’s body adds to family’s ordeal
GSPI News Editor
It’s been a long and trying year for the family of Erich Fritz.
Last June 1, the 32-year-old Denver man slipped beneath the surface of the Colorado River during a canoe trip gone bad in Glenwood Canyon, never to be seen again.
Coping with his loss has been hard enough for his family. But their ordeal has been compounded by the fact that his body has never been found.
“We have contacts in the area and they have assured us if anything becomes available they’ll let us know, but I don’t wait for that phone call,” Fritz’s mother, Julie, said in a telephone interview from her home in Muncie, Ind.
She realizes her son’s body may never be found. The result is legal complications affecting his children, Noah, 5, and Emily, 3.
“They can’t get any of his life insurance benefits or Social Security benefits until there’s a death certificate,” Julie Fritz said.
Erich’s family has to wait until a year after his drowning to petition for a presumptive death certificate, she said.
Finding Erich’s body would have eliminated the need for such legal proceedings. But Garfield County Search and Rescue’s efforts were unsuccessful.
In August, Erich’s family hired the Trident Foundation Dive Recovery Team of Fort Collins to do a sonar search from boats at the Shoshone Reservoir at Hanging Lake Rest Area, where Erich drowned.
The team concluded that his body wasn’t in the reservoir, and must have been swept over the dam and downstream, since spring runoff continued to increase the day after his death. The canoe was found just below the dam.
Body may never be recovered
The Colorado River doesn’t always easily give up its dead. Sometimes, drowning victims are found far downstream, months or even years later.
Jim Sears, emergency operations commander for the Garfield County Sheriff’s Department, remembers a 1995 incident in which an elderly man’s car was swept into the river near Rifle. The man’s body and his compact car have never been recovered.
Likewise, Erich’s body may forever remain in the river.
“I think he’d be OK with that,” says his mother.
Her son is gone, but not her memories of a young man who loved canoeing, being outdoors, camping, hiking, enjoying music and being with other people.
Erich also loved being a father to his children. He called them often, and planned to visit them at their mother’s home in Texas last June 6, for his son’s birthday, Julie Fritz said.
Erich worked at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Denver. He was an emergency medical technician there, and was studying to be a nurse.
Not a novice
Erich Fritz was an experienced canoeist.
“Erich had been on that river just the week before,” his mother said.
Her husband, Bob Fritz, had gone to canoe camp as a youngster, and would take the whole family canoeing.
Bob was also in the boat the day of the accident, as was Erich’s sister, Hannele.
Julie Fritz said the river wasn’t particularly rough that day.
“They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.
The stretch is generally rapid-free, but was running high due to the spring runoff. Fritz said water that hit a rock caused spray or a wave that filled the boat and capsized it.
Erich and Bob made it back to the canoe, but Hannele didn’t.
As Bob swam to one side of the river, Erich, who wasn’t wearing a life jacket, went after his sister and pulled her to the other side. Two or three times she went underwater, but Erich pulled her back to the surface, saving her life.
“I don’t think he even gave a second thought. He just did what needed to be done,” Fritz said.
Erich eventually pushed his sister out of the river.
“When she turned around, he was gone,” his mother said.
Fritz said she doesn’t know why her son drowned.
“He was a young man, physically active. I think that’s why they call them accidents. I don’t think anyone can second-guess what happened.”
A fruitless search
Search and rescue crews looked for Erich’s body for several weeks, both in the reservoir and downstream.
Failing to find the body was frustrating for searchers hoping to bring closure to Erich’s family, said Sears. He searched the area on foot for two weeks straight himself.
Last fall, the reservoir water level dropped when Xcel, which operates the hydroelectric plant downstream, drained the reservoir to clear a buildup of sand. Sears said searchers scouted the reservoir again, but it was too muddy.
A high runoff this season could free up the body and lead to its discovery, but there is no search going on at this point. If the body is downstream of the reservoir, searchers wouldn’t know where to even begin looking for it, Sears said.
Julie Fritz said the family appreciates the efforts made by Garfield County authorities and Trident. Likewise, she said, people stepped forward in Muncie, Denver and Texas to provide assistance, including financial aid to help pay for Trident’s services.
Fellow staff at St. Joseph’s sent a scrapbook and other remembrances of Erich, she said.
“He was a wonderful young man,” she said. “I would have liked to have had him for my friend even if he weren’t my son.”
Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516
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