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Christopher M. Heaton, Sr., 26, drowned, Tuesday, February 7, 2012, while attempting to rescue a small child that he believed was trapped in a submerged vehicle. Authorities say the Tennessee River's current was swift when 25-year-old Christopher Heaton jumped in the water to rescue his girlfriend.

Christopher Heaton was proud of his two young sons, always showing off photos of them.

"He was always bragging about them," said Chris York, who worked with 25-year-old Heaton at Advance Auto in Jasper, Tenn.

Heaton, a father of 3- and 4-year-old boys, died Tuesday when he dived into the Tennessee River near Bridgeport, Ala., after he saw his girlfriend's car sinking. He apparently did not see that his girlfriend was being helped to shore by a fisherman at the time, authorities say.

But there was a car seat in the back of his girlfriend's car, and his family believes Heaton was trying to rescue a child who he thought still was inside.

Heaton and his girlfriend - whose name police have not released - don't have any children together, but she has two children who were not in the car, Jackson County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Rocky Harnen said.

Regardless of who Heaton was trying to save, friends and family describe him as a young man who put those he loved first.

"That's the way he was," said Heaton's uncle, Don Skiles, who was reached by phone Thursday.

Heaton was a good father to his sons, Skiles said, and was living with his grandparents, raising the boys as he worked and went to school.

The whole family had a part in raising Heaton, he said.

"It feels like you lost your own child," Skiles said.

Heaton was supposed to meet his girlfriend at the old ferry boat ramp in Bridgeport, Harnen said. The woman parked her car on the steep ramp - so steep it would be hard for someone to walk up, Harnen said - between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m.

The car slipped into the water and immediately was swept away by the current, Harnen said. The woman later was treated for bruises and hypothermia, he said.

When the car was pulled from the river Wednesday, police found the parking brake still was engaged, Harnen said. But police aren't clear on why the woman was parked on a boat ramp in the first place.

A rescue team found Heaton's body nearly five hours later about 40 yards from the shore.

Heaton, a Richard Hardy Memorial School graduate, earned his industrial maintenance degree from Chattanooga State Community College, according to information in his obituary.

He was hired about a month ago at Advance Auto and also was an apprentice learning to lay gas lines, York said.

"He was a hard worker," York said. "Always making sure [his kids] were provided for."