UPDATE: Crews recover body from car submerged in Cypress Creek

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FLORENCE, Ala. (WHNT) – Teams have retrieved the body from a car that went into Cypress Creek early Friday morning.

Heath Atkisson (Photo Courtesy: Brittany Brewer)
Heath Atkisson (Photo Courtesy: Brittany Brewer)

Divers recovered the man around 3:15 Friday afternoon. The Lauderdale County Coroner confirms that man is 29-year-old Johnathon Heath Atkisson.

The car went off the bridge about 4 a.m.  Highway 20 was blocked in both directions near the bridge as teams worked in the area for 12 hours.  Teams on the water put a buoy in the car’s location so they can pull it out later.  The water temperature was too dangerous for divers until later in the afternoon.

Authorities say around 4 a.m., another person in the car knocked on the door of a home near Columbus and Alabama Streets to ask for help. He was drenched, and the closest home was nearly a mile away.

“It was told that he had hypothermia and he was knocking on doors asking for help,” said Florence Fire Chief Jeffery Perkins.

Authorities responded to the bridge about 4:30 a.m. and reportedly saw the car’s headlights in the water initially. At that point, the water temperature was 17 degrees.

The cold water and record low temperatures made the rescue effort extremely difficult.

“At the time we didn’t think anyone was in immediate danger,” said Florence Police Chief Ron Tyler. “We felt like we had time to be patient and to be sure we were careful.”

They attempted to use an underwater camera, but the water was too murky. Dive crews had to wait for the water to warm up.

“Florence Police officers and our dive team are not equipped to send officers into the water in 17 degree temperature,” added Tyler. “We just don’t have the capacity to do that.”

But around two, they felt it was safe enough to go in the creek. Even still, it wasn’t an easy effort.

“Divers were in the water ten minutes or less and their muscles began to seize up.”

Once the team recovered the body, the coroner worked to identify the man. Now, they are working to determine who was actually driving the car.

“It is very likely that depending on who the driver is we’ll determine that we will present a case to a grand jury,” Chief Tyler said. “We’ll let a grand jury make a determination on whether or not criminal charges are justified.”

At last check, the car was still at the bottom of the creek. Chief Tyler said the dive team will be back in the water Saturday.

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