A large wake from a tugboat pushing a massive barge on the Chicago River caused a motorboat to capsize and the drowning of a 7-year-old passenger, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by the boy’s family.
Victor Lobato Ochoa, of Little Village, was tossed from a 16-foot motorboat into the river by waves created by the tugboat and barge speeding in a no-wake zone in the early-evening hours of July 22, 2020, according to the lawsuit.
The boy drowned in the South Branch of the Chicago River just south of Roosevelt Road near Ping Tom Memorial Park. Victor was on the motorboat with his parents, three siblings and several family friends for a river cruise.
The lawsuit cites a report from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources that concluded the cause of the accident was the “force of the wake” from the tugboat and barge that together spanned 271 feet.
Chicago Fire Department divers found Ochoa’s body trapped under the capsized boat. He was flown by helicopter to Mercy Hospital where he was pronounced dead. Five of the eight other passengers aboard the boat received treatment at a local hospital.
“This wake had a reverberating effect where it would bounce off the wall of the river and then basically clash together, compounding the effect,” attorney Mike Gallagher, who is representing Victor’s family, said at a news conference Thursday at his law firm’s office in the Loop.
Except for one adult who could swim, everyone on the boat was wearing a life preserver, Gallagher said.
“Victor had a life preserver on, but somehow got out from underneath it while he was trapped underneath the boat,” said Gallagher, noting that a life preserver wouldn’t have saved his life because the boy was trapped for about 20 minutes underwater before he was freed.
“There’s no day that I don’t wake up and hope to see him there,” Victor’s mother, Mariana Ochoa, said Thursday. “I go visit him every day at the cemetery.”
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages from four companies that own and operate the tugboat and barge, including Lehigh Hanson Services. A message left with Lehigh Hanson was not returned Thursday.
Victor was a helper and a rule follower, the type of kid who’d tell someone who looked sad “Everything will be OK,” Mariana Ochoa said. He dreamed of being a firefighter and was headed into the second grade at McCormick Elementary School.
“It’s heartbreaking because as a mom you will no longer see that young kid transform into a teenager, graduate high school, middle school and become what he dreamed to become,” his mother said.
“It is a great pain that one will have inside for the rest of their lives,” said Victor’s father, Jesus Lobato.
The family hopes the lawsuit leads to awareness and prevention of future accidents on a river where recreational and commercial boat traffic often come into close contact — a relationship that depends on the no-wake rule.
“If the boat had been, speedwise, slower, everything would have been fine because we were going home,” Lobato said.