Jose Cuevas was taking a stroll with his roommate on the Chicago Riverwalk after catching a late-night movie when he heard faint screams.
"Help, help, help!'' Cuevas said he heard a male voice cry out in the darkness. Cuevas asked him where he was.
"He goes: 'I'm in the river! It's me and my friend -- it's the three of us,''' said Cuevas, recalling the fear in the man's voice.
In the minutes after Cuevas called 911, rescue workers pulled two men from the icy water not far from Lake Shore Drive. According to relatives and a law enforcement source, Ken Hoang, 26, of St. Paul, Minn., was later pronounced dead at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The second man remained hospitalized Monday. The third victim, a woman, was still missing Monday night and presumed dead.
Hoang's younger brother, David, said his brother left Sunday with friends for a road trip to New Jersey but had stopped off in Chicago for a quick visit. Police said Hoang was taking photos of the icy Chicago River at about 12:05 a.m. Monday when he dropped his cell phone and apparently lunged to catch it -- only to fall into the water. His two companions, a 21-year-old woman and a 23-year-old man, followed him into the river in an apparent bid to save him.
"It's such a waste of life," his brother, 23, said from the family home in Minnesota.
Just last month a frighteningly similar incident took place a few blocks away when a woman visiting from Dallas accidentally slipped into the river near the Michigan Avenue bridge in the early morning hours of Dec. 17. Alicia Garnett, 30, was pulled from the river at about 4:15 a.m. and pronounced dead about an hour later at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The Cook County medical examiner's office said it was awaiting toxicology tests at the time.
As he walked along the river early Monday, Cuevas, a truck driver who lives in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, said he thought he heard someone yelling but that his roommate, Luis Bertrand, 42, hadn't noticed anything. But then the cries for help grew louder.
"Please hurry, my friend is dying. Please, I can't hold on any longer,'' Cuevas said he heard the man yell out. "My girlfriend is in the water, and I don't know where she's at.''
As Cuevas rushed to the 400 block of McClurg Court to give the 911 dispatcher the location, he said Bertrand remained by the river and tried to comfort the voice in the dark.
After police, fire boats and two ambulances arrived, Cuevas said he saw workers pull two people from the water near the Columbus Drive bridge.
Police found the 21-year-old woman's purse near where she went into the water. The search for her body continued throughout much of the day before being called off after 6 p.m.
Late Monday night, the hospitalized victim's Facebook account added this entry: "Life's too short. I hope no one would ever have to go through something so unfortunate such as what has happened."
The Police Department's marine unit focused its recovery efforts Monday near the eastern edge of River Esplanade Park that abuts tony Streeterville neighborhood homes on the river's north shore. On Monday morning, dog walkers occasionally stepped from neighboring condos, ducking under a red strip of police tape erected to keep onlookers away before gazing back at the divers' work.
Jagged panes of broken ice crowded much of the river's surface. One diver who navigated the gaps of murky water said its temperatures were barely above freezing. The afternoon's sunlight didn't help.
Underwater, he said, "visibility is zero."
The park is lined with metal barriers that block pedestrian access to the water. Large signs scattered along the fence warn of the park's 11 p.m. closing time.
Piles of dirty slush surrounded the barrier's base -- slick footing for anyone attempting to lean in for a better view of the river or climb over and down onto a narrow wooden embankment mounted closer to the water's surface.
David Hoang said he was awakened at about 2:30 a.m. by his sister, Kathy, alerting him to the tragedy.
According to Hoang, his family emigrated from Vietnam when he and his siblings were youngsters, settling in St. Paul.
Ken Hoang's LinkedIn profile described himself as "inquisitive and unorthodox."
His brother said he loved technology and playing online role-playing games on his computer. He became an active member of the news-oriented social media site Reddit.
"I think one of his biggest enjoyments was browsing Wikipedia," David Hoang said. "I would find him reading about politics, physics, anything and everything. This guy was just a bank of trivia knowledge. He loved it."
Ken Hoang studied at the University of Minnesota but didn't graduate, his brother said. He landed a job at a Wells Fargo office in Bloomington, Minn., and was doing well, he said. He was planning to return to school to capitalize on his success at work.
"He was an extremely intelligent individual," David Hoang said. "And I sometimes told him he was wasting his talent by being complacent, but he was really turning that around. The complacency was disappearing. Things were really coming together for him."
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