NILES — A New Year’s Day kayaking venture in Niles went horribly wrong, leaving one of four kayakers dead.
Lt. Michael Stanton of the Niles Police Department said the four male kayakers launched upstream from the French Paper Mill Dam on the St. Joseph River. A witness called 911 around 8:30 a.m. when two of the kayakers started having problems. In all, he said three of the kayakers tipped over near the dam, where the current is relatively swift. When emergency workers arrived, they found that one kayaker had made it to shore on his own while another was clinging to a cable and buoy system stretched across the river near the dam, according to Stanton.
Niles Fire Chief Larry Lamb said his department rescued the man hanging onto the cable system. “He was maybe 100 feet from going over the dam,” Lamb said. Witnesses said the missing kayaker was last seen hanging onto trees and debris that was caught by the cable system before he went under water, according to Stanton.
Stanton said emergency workers spent hours looking for the missing kayaker. The search included the use of a drone and help from the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office Underwater Dive Team, Clay Fire Territory from Indiana, Niles Township Fire Department and Southwestern Michigan Community Ambulance Service. He added that emergency workers searched the banks on both sides of the river for almost two miles downstream before bringing in heavy equipment to move the debris where the kayaker was last seen in case he had gotten stuck under water. Once some of the debris was moved, he said the body was dislodged around 12:30 p.m.
Stanton said the man was taken to Lakeland Hospital, Niles, where he was pronounced dead. The other two kayakers who capsized were treated and released. Stanton said it appeared that the kayakers were wearing life jackets.
Niles police later identified the deceased kayaker as Jean Claude Mutabazi, 40, of South Bend.
The surviving kayakers were identified as 81-year-old Ted Knudson of South Bend, 72-year-old Tom Lehman of South Bend, Pierre Celestin, 37, of Berkeley, California.