Rosary, life vest found by fisherman may have belonged to drowned seminarian

Chris Anaya and his cousin were looking for a good place to fish on the Arkansas River near the Keeper of the Plains on Saturday afternoon when he spotted something odd.

About half of a life vest was floating in the water, with something unusual dangling from it: part of a rosary.

“It just stood out like a sore thumb to me,” Anaya said in a Facebook interview Monday about his find.

He immediately thought of Brian Bergkamp, the seminarian who went missing while kayaking on the rain-swollen Arkansas River on July 9 and was presumed drowned.

Wichita police on Monday confirmed that a body found in the river near Herman Hill Park last week was Bergkamp’s. His family was notified Friday after the coroner was able to confirm his identity, Sgt. Nikki Woodrow said.

The Catholic Diocese of Wichita said in a statement Monday that it “wishes to express gratitude to God for His abundant graces offered to strengthen all impacted by Brian’s death, to the members of the recovery team and personnel of the Wichita Fire and Police Departments, and to those others who have helped in any way throughout this tragedy.

“Brian’s Diocesan family is also thankful that his mortal remains will be able to be laid to rest and have a place at which continued prayers may be offered for his eternal well-being.

“Finally, our prayers continue to be lifted up for the consolation of Brian’s family as they take the next step to honor the memory of their son and brother.”

During their fishing excursion on Saturday, Anaya’s cousin told him to ignore the life vest. But Anaya said he couldn’t let it go.

“It was speaking to me, honestly,” he said. “I just couldn’t let it sit.”

He finally called 911 to report his discovery, then went down to the water’s edge to fetch the vest and rosary from the water for the officer who arrived to investigate.

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Police had been searching for Bergkamp, 24, since he disappeared while kayaking on the Arkansas River. Bergkamp, a student at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, fell into the water near the 21st Street Bridge while attempting to help another kayaker who had fallen into the rain-swollen river.

St. Anne’s Catholic Church hosted nightly vigils for more than a week in support of the efforts to find Bergkamp, and more than 1,000 people attended a memorial Mass on July 18 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception honoring the seminarian.

Bergkamp has been hailed as a hero for his efforts to save a woman in his kayaking group who had fallen into the water.

Police have said he was kayaking with four friends, a man and three women, when they hit churning water under the 21st Street Bridge.

According to the account provided by the woman Bergkamp saved, two of the women and Bergkamp’s fellow seminarian were able to paddle through the rushing, swirling water beneath the bridge, but the back end of her kayak was sucked under the water.

When the kayak tipped, she fell out of it. She had a life jacket, but was not wearing it at the time.

Bergkamp was behind her, wearing his life jacket. Instead of paddling through the churning waters, he stopped to help.

He was calm the entire time, trying to get the two of them to a metal ladder attached to a support under the bridge.

From his kayak, he threw her the life jacket she had lost, which had floated away when she fell in the water.

Because of the over-the-head style of the life jacket, the water sucked it off shortly after she put it on.

Then Bergkamp’s kayak overturned.

Somehow, she was able to get out of the current. After that, she was floating on her back in the river until the other seminarian came in his kayak to pull her to shore.

No one saw Bergkamp after his kayak capsized.

When Anaya found the life vest on Saturday, the large wooden rosary was tangled in the prongs that would have slipped into the clasp that secures the vest. The cross was gone, but the loop of rope with the wooden beads remained intact.

A member of the Bergkamp family said Monday afternoon they had not been contacted about the vest and rosary.

“It’s just too coincidental” that the rosary was dangling from the vest, Anaya said. He’s hoping the rosary is Bergkamp’s and can be returned to the family.

“That’s been my intention from the start,” he said.

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger

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