Search teams recover the body of second teen from Pascagoula River

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALDRay Fountaine stands on a pier at the Pascagoula River saying a prayer Monday. Fountaine said he didn’t know Brandon Rich or Caleb Sweeten but was offering a prayer for them and their families. Both Pascagoula High students were involved in a skiing accident Sunday. Sweeten’s body was found Sunday and Rich’s body was found Monday afternoon.

PASCAGOULA — Jackson County search crews late Monday afternoon recovered the body of a teen who had been missing since Sunday when he and a friend were knee-boarding and got swept up in a current in the Pascagoula River.

A cadaver dog alerted authorities to a possible body under a tugboat, where dive teams later recovered the body of Brandon Rich, a Pascagoula High School student who died along with Caleb Sweeten in the accident. Sweeten’s body was recovered near a barge about 45 minutes after the accident was reported at 4 p.m. Sunday.

“We were hoping he was still alive,” said Shear Powell, a friend of both teens who waited out the search for Rich. “It just feels unreal. I know he’s in a better

place now.”

Still, Powell said, it’s hard to wrap his mind around the fact that two of his friends are gone.

“We were just with these boys Friday,” Powell said. “I grew up with Brandon. And I was friends with Caleb. They were the type that could put a smile on your face even if you were in a bad mood.”

At least 10 boats from Jackson County and Pascagoula participated in the search along with Gulf Coast Search and Rescue and the Department of Marine Resources. Bosarge Diving also sent a 28-foot diving boat to help with the search.

Around 12:30 p.m. Monday, Sheriff Mike Byrd said one of the cadaver dogs indicated there may be a body under a tugboat, and divers went in to search for Rich. By 4 p.m., his body had been recovered.

Friends of the two popular students throughout the day Monday stopped at a Pascagoula boat launch at Lighthouse Park and at Scranton Island to check on the progress of the search for Rich.

Among those staying around while the search continued was Joe Davis, an athletic trainer who worked with Rich, a popular athlete who on Friday made a decision to accept a football scholarship to play at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. On Saturday, he qualified to compete at the state track meet this week.

“I know this sound like a cliche, but (Rich) was a great kid, a great kid,” Davis said. “I’ve known him since middle school. Everybody is hoping to find closure for his family.”

Davis added: “The good thing about being from a small community is everybody knows each other and they have been 100 percent supportive of each other.”

Byrd had said authorities searched until nearly 2 a.m. Sunday for Rich, but were unable to locate him then. He said the search for Rich would have continued until he was found.

The sheriff described Sunday’s accident as “tragic.”

Three boys, including Rich and Sweeten, had gone out on a boat Sunday. They were knee-boarding at the time of the accident.

Authorities believe both boys were wearing life jackets and when one of the boy went under, the other jumped in to help him. They believe both boys were pulled underwater by the strong currents.

“It’s very dangerous on the water,” Byrd said. “You just have to be aware of what is going on when you have torrential rains. Rivers are going to rise. The currents are going to get faster. It’s sad and it’s unfortunate these things happen in this community.”

Sweeten was a sophomore linebacker on the Panthers football team, No. 39.

Rich was a senior starting defensive back for Pascagoula High School Panthers football team, No. 8, and a forward on the basketball team.

Both students played in this year’s 5A South State Championship football game.

Gwen Cheathal, a friend of Rich’s family, said the entire incident felt like a dream.

“It just doesn’t seem real,” she said. “You see these kids one day and the next day they are gone.”

Staff writer Leighanne Lockhart, contributed to this report.






HARRISON COUNTY — A Gulfport man whose body was recovered by divers Saturday morning in a Harrison County pond has been identified.

Donnie Hoda, 64, accidentally drowned, Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said.

Authorities believe Hoda went fishing in a pond off Jake Bell Road near Wolf River Road on Thursday.

Concerned friends discovered his home unlocked when they checked on him, and found his fishing pole floating in the pond, Hargove said.

They notified authorities, he said.

Harrison County Fire Marshal Pat Sullivan said a search began at 9:30 a.m. Saturday that involved the Harrison County Fire Services Dive Team, Gulf Coast Search and Rescue K9 unit, Lizana Fire Department and the Sheriff’s Department.

Hoda’s body was recovered about 11:15 a.m., Hargrove said.