St. Paul man dies trying to retrieve phone from Chicago River; woman presumed dead

He was trying to retrieve cellphone; she tried to help.

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Chicago Police and Fire Department boats are seen on the Chicago River in downtown Chicago early Monday morning, Jan. 14, 2014, where a St. Paul man was pulled from the water after he jumped over a fence to get a cellphone he'd dropped into the water. The man died later at a hospital.

Photo: George Slefo, Sun-Times Media via AP

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Friends and family are mourning two young Minnesotans who apparently drowned in the Chicago River in pursuit of a dropped cellphone early Monday morning. A third Minnesotan was pulled from the icy river and is in critical condition in a Chicago hospital.

Ken Hoang, 26, and his two friends were on a road trip, said Michael Viet Huynh, who knew Hoang at the University of Minnesota.

Police had not recovered the missing woman’s body as of late Monday night, but earlier in the day University of Minnesota classmates of Lauren Li, 21, were told that she and Hoang had died in Chicago.

“They told us they didn’t know the details, but that Ken had passed and Lauren was still missing,” said Phong Do, a U student who knew Li. “There was shock and stunned silence.”

Hoang died at Northwestern Hospital early Monday after police pulled his body from the river, family members and a law enforcement source told the Chicago Tribune.

By Monday a memorial fund for the family had been established online and the family had announced Hoang’s death on his Facebook page.

The name of the surviving man, a 23-year-old student at the University of Minnesota, has not been released.

According to Chicago police officer Mike ­Sullivan, the three friends “hopped a fence” in the 400 block of E. North Water Street in downtown. Investigators told the Tribune that Hoang was taking photos of the icy river about 12:05 a.m. Monday when he dropped his cellphone and apparently lunged to catch it but fell in the water. Police said his two friends followed him into the river to try to save him.

“Ken was always going on road trips,” said Viet Huynh. “He was always a carefree kind of guy. He was an awesome guy. He was always laughing. It sucks that he’s gone.”

Viet Huynh said he also knew Li. “She was adorable. She taught dance and she loved to help people. And when she laughed, everyone knew.”

Do said Li was “very outgoing, very friendly. … If I was having an off day I would hang around her and she made me feel better.”

The lone survivor’s Facebook page paid tribute to his friends: “Life’s too short. I hope no one would ever have to go through something so unfortunate such as what has happened … from the bottom of my heart I am sorry for what happened … RIP Ken Hoang Lauren Li.”

This is at least the third case in a month of people falling into the river in the downtown area, with one of the earlier incidents also proving fatal, according to police.

 

mlsmith@startribune.com • 612-673-4788 paul.walsh@startribune.com • 612-673-4482

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