Family of drowned man: ‘Glad he’s out of the water’

lfabian@macon.comApril 9, 2013 

For nine days, the family of Aaron Cross watched and waited as searchers tirelessly combed the Ocmulgee River.

Their vigil ended about 11 a.m. Tuesday when cadaver dogs alerted to the top of a submerged tree about 500 yards from where Cross went under April 1.

“I thought I’d feel better now, but I don’t,” said Jarratt Cross, his father. “But I’m glad he’s out of the water, though. It’s just been real hard on the family.”

The 24-year-old loved the river so much he braved the 60 degree temperature to swim across, one last time, before moving to California to be near his mother, whose husband died in a motorcycle accident last month.

Cross’ body temperature likely dropped so rapidly that he began suffering hypothermia, authorities suspect.

An autopsy planned for Wednesday will determine cause of death, which is presumed to be drowning, said Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones.

In yelling for help, Cross told his friends he was frozen and couldn’t move. They quickly realized it was no April fool’s joke, that he could not make it back to shore.

Friends tried to pull him in, but he slipped away in the swift current. The river was rising after early morning rain.

Capt. Bob Lynn of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday the water temperature prolonged the search.

“It’s been an extensive and exhaustive search,” Lynn said after the body had been retrieved from the water.

The DNR had four men in two boats continually looking for him, using sonar technology and dragging the river bed.

Macon-Bibb County firefighters and deputies searched from the banks as fire department colleagues cruised in their own rescue boat.

A helicopter searched miles down river Monday in case the body was swept downstream, although that was doubtful, Lynn said.

“You never know,” he said. “There’s no two drownings or no two boat incidents that are the same in working them. You have to cover all your bases.”

Aerial crews did not see Cross’ body, though, which Lynn believes must have surfaced overnight.

Early Tuesday, the DNR called volunteer canine crews back to the river to set up a new search perimeter in case the body had started floating and shifted in the current.

The first dog alerted farther downstream than days before and a second canine confirmed that same location. Rangers caught sight of Cross’ body, partially submerged, about 10 feet from the bank.

Cross’ mother and grandmother were relieved to get the call that his body had been discovered.

“I just wanted him found,” said his mother, Michelle Raffield. “I know my baby’s home now.”

Days ago, while waiting near the bank, Raffield’s mother felt a bird land on her neck.

“He got on top of my head, pulling my hair out and taking it to a nest,” said Michelle Hickman, Raffield’s mother.

Hickman pulled up her hood, and the titmouse landed again and pulled some of her gray hair from the side of her face.

“I said, ‘That’s Aaron telling me everything is all right,’” Hickman said.

Cross’ mother also saw it as a sign.

“We knew he’d gone home when that bird kept picking on us,” Raffield said.

The family is planning visitation from 6-8 p.m. Friday at Crest Lawn Funeral Home on Pio Nono Avenue.

Hickman, whose husband died of a heart attack in October, said she had a conversation with her grandson after his other grandmother died.

He told her if something happened to him, he wanted to be cremated, with his ashes scattered in the Ocmulgee.

They plan to honor his wishes in a private memorial service, she said.

“He’ll be missed. He was loved by a lot of people.”

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