JASPER, JACKSON COUNTY (WRCB) -- Chris Heaton's mother Debra, speaks softly, and her eyes moisten as she speaks of the young man whose actions most anyone would call heroic.

"I used to say I'm glad I don't know the pain of losing a child," she says. "But now I can say I do, and it's unbearable."

Christopher, 26, drowned in the Tennessee River near the ferry dock in Bridgeport, Alabama early Tuesday evening.

"He had dove in to save her, and he didn't come back up," says Melvin Hall, Assistant Chief of Bridgeport's Volunteer Fire & Rescue Department.

Heaton had gone to the dock to meet his girlfriend, but when he arrived he found his girlfriend's car had slipped off the ramp and into the water, according to Jackson County Chief Deputy Rocky Harnen.

"He thought she or her baby must have been inside," Debra says. "They (sheriff's investigators) tell me he went in."

Two days later, the landing bears a mud stripe showing the water level was slightly higher Tuesday evening.

"It was faster and colder," Hall says. "I'd say it's about 40 degrees, the water was."

"Chris was a strong swimmer," Debra says.

But he would have been handicapped even in still, warm waters.

"He'd broken his collarbone, so he had a shoulder pinned. He was wearing steel-toed work boots."

Witnesses told investigators they saw Heaton bob up twice, then disappear.

His girlfriend had crawled out the driver's side window and escaped her car. A fishermen helped her to shore. Her child was not aboard.

Hall's volunteers had help from four fire and rescue departments to recover Heaton's body.

"We were out almost five hours," Hall says. "He wasn't but about 50 to 100 yards from where he went under."

Heaton's uncle, Don Skiles, describes him as just a "big-hearted kid," devoted to his boys, Chris Jr., 4 and Hunter, 3.

Recently, he'd completed coursework for industrial maintenance at Chattanooga State. He was apprenticing as a pipe fitter while working part-time at Advanced Auto.

Coworkers describe him as enthusiastic, energetic, impulsive and caring.

"He could fix anything," Skiles says. "He would give everything his all."

Thursday afternoon, the family received friends at Tate Funeral Home in Jasper.

Services will he held there at 10:00 AM CST Friday.

"We still have too many questions to say much," Skiles says. "But know that Chris risked everything a hero would risk, when he dove into that water."