Members of the sheriff’s dive team are briefed Friday, April 7. (Photo by Dan Pepper)

Weather hampers efforts after man falls in river

By: 
Daniel Pepper (Staff Writer)

Police searched the Kalamazoo River Friday, April 7, between Otsego and Plainwell for a man who was seen in the river Thursday, April 6, and is feared dead.

According to the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office, they believe the man they are searching for is Michael Joseph Baird, 34, who went for a walk in downtown Plainwell around 8 p.m., according to family members.

The conditions of the river and weather have continued to hamper searches in the  river in the days since, Sgt. Todd Wagner—who heads the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office dive team—said.

“The recent weather has been working against us and any efforts we try to put forth,” Wagner said. “I’ve been at the river daily watching water levels rise and currents get stronger, after which I have daily contact with the family to provide them updates.”

Wagner said Tuesday, April 11, officers had sought to use aircraft to search the river, but called it off because of low clouds.

“Right now, we’re continuing to monitor the river levels daily to see if there is any drop and changes,” he said. “We’ve been also looking along the banks and points of interest we marked during our original search.

“We are planning on re-scheduling the air search and once water levels begin to drop we’ll put boats back in to try and navigate it for a closer look.

“Unfortunately, until we start getting several days that are rain free we’re in a holding pattern, so to speak.”

On Thursday about 8:40 p.m. a resident of the Oaks Assisted Living Facility on North Main Street in Plainwell reported someone calling for help, police said, and police officers from the Plainwell Department of Public Safety, Otsego City Police Department along with sheriff deputies rushed to the river, getting sight of a man in the water being pulled downstream near the US-131 bridge. The officers tried to rescue the man with life lines and rescue devices but he was unable to grab hold.

Two sheriff’s deputies then saw a man in the water at the former site of the Plainwell Dam, at the end of 12th Street in Otsego Township.

Wagner said, “They threw a rope and life ring to him and he didn’t move.”

Wagner said the deputies had also shouted to the man in the water with no response.

“People who are in a cold water situation, the hypothermia can set in very fast and then they can be very unresponsive,” Wagner said.

Based on his knowledge of hypothermia, Wagner said it was possible the man hadn’t even been aware there was anyone there trying to help him.

The dive team and marine division were sent to the scene, along with the Otsego Fire Department, and searched the river with boats until about midnight, the sheriff’s office said.

Officers started searching the riverbanks Friday morning, but the river’s conditions—very high and fast from rain and snow runoff—make it hazardous to even put a boat in the water, let alone a diver.

“This is the worst case scenario,” Wagner said.

He said he’d spoken to family members and told them officers would have to perform an assessment of the risk to themselves and their fellow officers of searching the river and the likelihood of finding Baird.

They searched the river with boats and with help from a Michigan State Police aviation unit.

Wagner said no one had any information about how the Baird got into the river, but said he’d been told Baird (who was from Englewood, Col.)  was staying with his grandmother for a time in Plainwell and often walked along and looked at the river. Wagner said they speculated he might have leaned over the North Main Street Bridge in Plainwell for a better look and fell in.

He said similar conditions on the river in Calhoun County were hampering the search for a man who drove into the river in Battle Creek in February.

Plainwell EMS and the Allegan County volunteer search and rescue team also helped in the efforts.

Contact Dan Pepper at dpepper@allegannews.com or at (269) 673-5534 or (269) 685-9571.

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