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Nonprofit group joins search for missing Watertown canoeist

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WATERTOWN — Armed with more than $130,000 in sonar and scuba diving gear, Keith A. Cormican and his son, Jeremy J., have joined in the search for the Watertown man lost in a canoe accident April 21.

The two men came from Black River Falls, Wis., to the Black River in search of John Villafranco as a part of Bruce’s Legacy, a nonprofit organization the two men started last year following the drowning death of Bruce Cormican, Keith’s brother.

After hearing from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office that the recovery effort for their son was a waiting game, Gilbert H. and Blanche G. Villafranco, of San Antonio, who have been staying at a nearby hotel since the day after the accident, are grateful that the Cormican men joined in.

Each day since the canoe carrying their son and his wife, Lydia, capsized on the river, the two have been walking the river’s edge, hoping to find a sign of their son, who would have turned 25 this month.

“We’ve been walking all the way to Glen Park,” Mrs. Villafranco said, referring to the site of the hydroelectric damwhere some victims swept away by the river have been found.

Frustrated over the search, sisters and cousins of John contacted Bruce’s Legacy, and beginning Monday morning, the father and son went out on the river off Eastern Boulevard, where the accident occurred.

Using a side scan sonar, they created images of the river’s bottom. With that, they can pinpoint locations that could contain John Villafranco’s body.

Today, the sonar will be put away in favor of a remote-operated vehicle equipped with a camera used to more closely examine the suspected areas.

On Saturday, the Villafrancos and local authorities conducted an experiment with a milk jug filled with water tied to a rope with an empty plastic gas can. The contraption was released from the river access point off Marble Street with the intent to track its path and simulate the tragic events from that Monday evening.

When the jugs reached a dam near the hydro plant, they were estimated to be traveling at 100 mph when they were sucked through one of the 30-foot holes entering a canal leading to the plant.

The hydro plant was shut down for one hour Monday and will be closed for an additional hour today. Jeremy Cormican believes that John’s body is most likely on the northern shore of Delano Island, between the dam and the access dock.

The younger Mr. Cormican said their organization has completed eight searches so far and that no two are the same. He did say, however, that with moving water and more debris, a river search is “really, really tough.”

For the Villafrancos, knowing that their son is still out there is the most devastating part of the ordeal. If Bruce’s Legacy, city firefighters, Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies or rescue diving squads carrying out the recovery effort find his body, it will bring closure.

Mr. Villafranco said his daughter-in-law, who was pulled ashore by Fort Drum soldiers fishing nearby in what Mr. Villafranco called “an act of God,” was devastated. But she too was out there one morning, walking the edge in search of her husband.

When they heard from the three soldiers that it appeared that their son was pushing Lydia up above water in one final move before he was pulled under, Mr. and Mrs. Villafranco applauded him.

“We’re so proud of what he did to save her,” Mr. Villafranco said. “He mustered every ounce of energy he had to save her because their love was unbelievable. His love for her was so strong.”

Having fished since he was a child and worked as a fishing guide on Lake Ontario, the younger Mr. Villafranco was a great swimmer, his father said. He believes that he might have been able to save himself, but instead chose to save his wife.

Mr. Villafranco asks that anyone who wants to help search or has information on his son’s whereabouts call him directly at 210-508-7349.

Anyone wishing to donate to Bruce’s Legacy, which charges only for travel expenses and accommodations, can do so at www.bruceslegacy.com.

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