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By JOHN FREIDLEIN and BOB WHITE
WEST POINT — Divers found the body Sunday of a Fort Knox soldier who apparently drown after falling into the mouth of Salt River when trying to rappel from a off-limits and active railroad bridge.
West Point Police said it appears Army Spc. Joe Don Land, 19, of Colorado, was hanging from the 50-foot trestle on a rope not made for rappelling when he fell from about four feet above the water around 5 p.m. Saturday.
Land, a member of the 19th Engineer Battalion, and seven other Fort Knox soldiers in their early 20s had gone to the river to swim and jump from the bridge, West Point Chief Butch Curl said. The bridge is at Salt River’s mouth at the Ohio River on the Jefferson-Hardin County line in West Point.
West Point police officer Steve Jesse said Land reportedly surfaced once, cried for help, and was not heard from again.
His friend, James J. Burnamenn, jumped from the bridge in an attempt to help Land, but was injured during the dive and had to be rescued from the water.
Burnamenn was flown to University Hospital in Louisville for treatment. He was reported to be in fair condition Sunday evening.
A search for Land was called off at 9 p.m. Saturday for safety reasons and resumed 12 hours later.
The body was recovered from the bottom of Salt River, about 22 feet below the surface, around 11 a.m. Sunday, according to a Hardin County Coroner’s Office statement. The body didn’t travel far from the site of impact, Curl said.
It is unclear what led to Land’s apparent drowning, but Curl said he was carrying extra rope when recovered. The makeshift rappelling seat and rope that Land used was not intended for rappelling or climbing, Curl said.
Jesse said it appears several of the soldiers had jumped from the bridge, but confirmed Land was the only one to have tried to rappel with the hodgepodge of gear.
The Army and local authorities are investigating the case as an accidental death.
Police said trespassing charges could apply to those who climbed atop the trestle. The bridge is actively used by P&L Railroad. It is outside the Fort Knox military reservation.
Jesse said some of the soldiers involved had been drinking a small amount of alcohol, but said it did not appear Land or Burnamenn were intoxicated or that alcohol contributed to the fatal accident or injury.
Land, an Iraqi war veteran, had returned to Fort Knox in November, post spokeswoman Connie Shaffery said.
Brig. Gen. Donald Campbell, the post commander, issued a statement: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family. I’m thankful for the search efforts of the civilian authorities.”
Resources from Louisville police, fire, dive and river units; Pleasure Ridge Park Fire Department; Hardin County Coroner’s Office; West Point police and fire departments, Indiana’s Division of Conservation, Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and other local authorities aided in the rescue and recovery efforts.