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Divers recover body of Valatie man from Hudson River

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    State police are investigating the death of a 71-year-old Valatie man who authorities say jumped from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge on Wednesday.
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    Lance Wheeler for Columbia-Greene Media State police are investigating the death of James Zegers, 71, of Valatie, who authorities say jumped from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge on Wednesday.
January 17, 2019 03:06 pm Updated: January 18, 2019 10:44 am

GREENPORT — Police identified the man who perished after he jumped from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge on Wednesday.

The body of James Zegers, 71, of Valatie, was pulled from the Hudson River near the shoreline in Greenport between Hallenbeck Road and the bridge after a recovery effort that lasted more than an hour.

The body will be taken for an autopsy to determine an exact cause of death. Final results are pending a toxicology report, state police spokesman Trooper Aaron Hicks said Thursday. It was not immediately known where the autopsy will be performed.

A final toxicology report could take several weeks, Hicks said.

Police were at the bridge soon after they received a 911 call at 2:18 p.m. They stayed on scene until 7:20 p.m. The exact time Zegers’ body was recovered was not listed in the police report, Hicks said, but Greenport Fire Chief John Onufrychuk said it might have been sometime around 4 p.m.

State police initially received a call for a welfare check on Zegers around 1:25 p.m. from a “third party” that was not his family, Hicks said.

A trooper was immediately dispatched to his house in Valatie to check on him, Hicks said. While at Zegers’ home, police received the 911 call informing them that Zegers had been at the bridge. Troopers spotted a vehicle matching a description of Zegers’ car parked near the bridge when they arrived.

Zegers leaped from the bridge before police arrived, Hicks said.

It is unclear when Zegers jumped or where he was standing on the bridge. State police investigators were reviewing surveillance video Thursday to try to piece together what happened, Hicks said.

State police had no comment Wednesday on Zegers’ motive and gave no statements on his mental health.

Police said Zegers drove to the bridge in his Toyota Prius. An investigator at the scene was taking pictures of the unoccupied car in the parking area adjacent to the bridge on the Columbia County side. A sheriff’s deputy was stationed near the Prius.

The state Bridge Authority made the call to 911 at 2:18 p.m. It is unclear whether someone witnessed the incident, but the incident was captured on surveillance cameras on the bridge.

Brian Frugis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany, said Tuesday the air temperature was around 37 degrees at about 2 p.m., when the rescue began. The water temperature was recorded as 32 degrees at 10 a.m. in the Hudson River near Rhinebeck. The river has been frozen since Sunday night.

Attempts to get a Columbia County Sheriff’s rescue boat into the river were hampered by thick ice, authorities said. An excavator was brought in to break up the ice into large chunks to enable the boat to get into the water.

The boats came from the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, Onufrychuk said.

“They [the sheriff’s office] thought they could make it up there but there was too much ice,” Onufrychuk said. “I couldn’t believe how much ice there was. Two weeks ago there was some ice on the shorelines but not the whole river. If the body of water was open they would have gotten a boat through there.”

Onufrychuk notified Amtrak to halt train traffic for a time because emergency vehicles were temporarily stationed on the track, he said.

Because of the amount of ice, a team of divers, four from Greenport and five from the Hudson Fire Department Water Rescue and Scuba Team, had to enter the river along the shoreline at the end of Hallenbeck Road, less than a mile north of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.

The divers wore immersion suits to insulate them from the cold, Onufrychuk said. Securing themselves with rope lines, the divers were able to reach the body within an hour. It was about another hour before they were back on shore, he said.

“They have to make their way slowly, and they have to pay attention to what they are doing,” Onufrychuk said. “They have to have rope lines on them in case, God forbid, one of them has trouble and so the guys on the line can pull him back.”

Traffic on the bridge was slowed in both directions for a time while the recovery effort was carried out, authorities said.

The Greenport Fire Department, Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, Greenport Rescue, Hudson City Fire Department, and state Department of Environmental Conservation assisted. Rescue divers from Athens were placed on standby.

To reach reporter Amanda Purcell, call 518-828-1616 ext. @2500, or send an email to apurcell@thedailymail.net, or tweet to @amandajpurcell.