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St. Helens man presumed drowned after fall from Christmas ship

by: Archive photo TRAGEDY — A St. Helens man is presumed to have drowned Saturday after that night’s Christmas Ships display, an annual parade where dozens of 
vessels, such as The Starting Point (pictured), travel along the Columbia River.

A St. Helens who fell from a docked Christmas Ship following the annual river parade is presumed to have drowned in the frigid Columbia River.

Numerous searches along a 10-mile stretch of the river have not turned up any sign of 43-year-old John Sullivan.

Reports say Sullivan fell from the deck of a 60-foot pleasure craft, The Trilogy, on Dec. 10 after that night's Christmas Ship display. He was a guest of the boat's owner and authorities believe no alcohol was involved in the incident.

After mooring the vessel at the public docks in front of the Columbia County Courthouse in St. Helens, Sullivan reportedly fell into the cold river around 9:15 p.m.

Witnesses say they tried to rescue Sullivan to no avail as he struggled to stay afloat, before disappearing under the water about 100 feet downstream from the docks. He was reportedly not wearing a life jacket.

A multi-agency search and rescue effort - which included the use of thermal imaging equipment, sonar and a helicopter - was unsuccessful. Authorities suspended Saturday's search at 11:30 p.m. and resumed it the next morning. Additional recovery efforts are ongoing, according to the Columbia County Sheriff's Office.

A statement by event organizers said the boat parades will continue and insisted safety is one of their top priorities.

'The Christmas Ship organization has been supporting safety training and issues at all general meetings with special emphasis on the wearing of personal floatation devices while on the water and specifically while on the deck of a vessel. We have regular safety briefings from both our Coast Guard Auxiliary support group as well as local county marine sheriff's patrols,' according to the statement.

Each holiday season, dozens of privately owned, brightly lit ships tour the Columbia and Willamette rivers as part of the popular Christmas Ships parades, now in its 57th year.

'This is the first major incident I can recall happening during the Christmas ship display,' said Lt. Dustin Hald of the Sheriff's Office. 'It is very unfortunate, and our thoughts go out to the family of Mr. Sullivan.'