Why are so many bodies appearing in Chicago’s river and lake? A 29-year-old Tribune story has the answer

Local media outlets have been making a bit of hay over the fact that authorities have recovered four bodies from the Chicago River and Lake Michigan over the past week:

  • An 80-year-old Asian woman was found in the river on the Lower West Side around 11:30 a.m. last Saturday, April 16. She lived about a block away from where she was found, according to the Cook County medical examiner.
  • Police recovered the body of an unidentified Black female of unknown age in the river near Union Station around the same time.
  • Shortly after noon Sunday, April 17, police found the body of an unidentified Black male of unknown age in the lake near 31st Street.
  • Friday afternoon, the body of a 31-year-old White female from New City was found in the river near 2700 South Damen.

What’s going on here? Time will tell, but the medical examiner is continuing to investigate the causes and manners of death for all four cases. That suggests they did not find obvious signs of foul play. Police have announced no suspicions of criminal activity.

Some clues, however, may be found in a story the Chicago Tribune published 29 years ago on April 12, 1993, headlined “SPRING BRINGS DROWNING VICTIMS TO THE SURFACE.”

Written by William Recktenwald, a career investigative reporter, the largely forgotten story explains the unpleasant science behind Chicago’s annual surge of waterway body recoveries.

A Chicago police marine unit vessel patrols the South Branch in March 2022. | @CPDMarineUnit

“One of the grim realities of spring in Chicago is that it is the time when bodies tend to wash ashore along Lake Michigan and area rivers,” Recktenwald began nearly three decades ago. “In the last two weeks, bodies of two women were found in the lake and a third in the Calumet River. One, the torso of a woman in a highly decomposed state found at the Foster Avenue beach, remains unidentified.”

His words sound like they could have been written today.

So, what causes the annual spike in waterway bodies?

When a person drowns, the lungs-which are normally full of air-compress as the body goes to the bottom, a spokesman for the Cook County Medical Examiner said. As the tissue begins to decompose, it creates gases which fill those cavities, and the body comes to the surface.

When the water is extremely cold, it slows and nearly stops that process. A body may remain at the bottom for months in the winter, but it surfaces in three to six days when the water is warmer.

Read Recktenwald’s piece for the full explanation.

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CWBChicago was created in 2013 by five residents of Wrigleyville and Boystown who had grown disheartened with inaccurate information that was being provided at local Community Policing (CAPS) meetings. Our coverage area has expanded since then to cover Lincoln Park, River North, The Loop, Uptown, and other North Side Areas. But our mission remains unchanged: To provide original public safety reporting with better context and greater detail than mainstream media outlets. Our editorial email address is news@cwbchicago.com