The man who drowned Sunday in Centennial Park after his motorized wheelchair accidentally plunged into a lake was identified Monday as Gerard Frierdich, a well-known photographer in Belleville.
Frierdich, 51, of Belleville, was pronounced dead at 10:25 p.m. Sunday after being discovered in the lake, according to St. Clair County Coroner Rick Stone.
The cause of death was drowning and Stone called it a "tragic accident."
Frierdich, better known as Gerry or "Chief," was paralyzed from the chest down in a bicycle accident in 2007 on Green Mount Road. He had been a photographer at Crafty Eye Photography in Belleville for 20 years when the accident occurred and previously worked at the Belleville News-Democrat in the composing room.
As a quadriplegic, Frierdich drove his motorized wheelchair everywhere, according to long-time friend Sandy Gore.
"That was his lifeline outside his four walls," she said. "When the weather was nice, he wasn't home. He was everywhere. It was his freedom, instead of sitting around the house and feeling sorry for himself."
Sandy and her husband, Bud Gore, of Belleville, had known Frierdich most of their lives, since kindergarten at Cathedral Grade School.
Frierdich's younger sister, Robin Weilbacher, 48, of Millstadt, said she always looked up to her big brother, who was honest, caring and embraced adversity.
"There was never a challenge he wouldn't be up for," she said, "Even after his accident."
Weilbacher said she was grateful her brother was still able to enjoy the two great loves of his life: photography and biking.
"He was an avid cyclist, loved being fit and outside, and he was, of course, a photographer by trade," she said. "Through adaptive equipment, he was able to do both of them after this accident."
Bud Gore said that just last week, he had installed a new stereo system and camera-mounted tri-pod to Frierdich's new wheelchair.
"He was so excited about that new chair ... it takes him places his old chair couldn't go," he said.
Frierdich took photos of wildflowers and recently made an 18-month calendar, "The View from My Chair," to help pay for his new ride.
He planted seeds and rolled clay balls with wild flower seeds to distribute to others to encourage flowers to grow near the trails.
On Monday, Bud Gore wore a yellow shirt from The Gerry Frierdich Road to Recovery Bicycle Ride, a fundraiser Gore helped organize to raise money for a hand-crank bicycle and other necessities for Frierdich.
On an early Saturday morning in August 2007, Frierdich was riding a recumbent bicycle on the shoulder of South Green Mount Road on his way to The Orchards Golf Club in Belleville. A truck veered off the road and slammed into him from behind.
The driver, Keith Joseph McCoy, 30, of St. Charles, Mo., was charged with two counts of driving under the influence of alcohol and two counts of reckless conduct. He is scheduled to appear for a plea next month, according to St. Clair County court records.
Frierdich was the second-youngest of six children. He never married or had children. Instead, he lived with his parents and cared for them in their senior years. His mother, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, died shortly before Frierdich's accident.
Despite his physical disabilities, Frierdich lived alone in the house his parents had owned. Friends, family and a caretaker checked on Frierdich daily. When he did not return home for dinner Sunday night, his caretaker notified relatives.
Those closest to him knew to search local bike paths. He lived near the Skate Park in Belleville, which is adjacent to the Belleville bike trail. He usually wheeled up to the trail and rode all over town, friends said.
"His life was that bike trail," Bud Gore said.
Near the edge of the pond where Frierdich's body was found, two roots jutted out of the ground. Bud Gore said those roots probably caused Frierdich's to lose control of his chair and fall into the lake.
Police said a pair of park patrons saw part of a motorized wheelchair, and part of a body, sticking out of the water about 9:15 p.m. Sunday. Police said the shore around the pond is uneven, and it appears Frierdich's scooter went into the water accidentally.
Frierdich was strapped to the chair with a safety belt, police said. The body and the apparatus were mostly submerged.
The park is located just north of Illinois 161, about a half a mile east of Illinois 159.
Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2460.