A failed rescue, then 'a miracle'

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH and KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 22, 2007 - 11:22 PM

It was pitch dark, the waters churning, when rescuers made five trips in an airboat to save six people "who were going to die."

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LA CRESCENT, MINN. - Three people clung to a tree and four rescuers trying to save them were themselves swept into the raging floodwaters by the time Scott Fritz arrived.

It was pitch black. Rain pounding. Rescuers were about out of options.

"At that point, we had seven people in the water who were going to die," said La Crescent Police Chief Todd Nelson, who helped coordinate the rescue early Sunday from the shore of Pine Creek, a normally placid trout stream in southeastern Minnesota.

"There was nothing we could do."

But Fritz and other rescuers -- their lives on the line -- used an airboat to pluck six of the seven from the churning waters in five harrowing rescues.

Several times, firefighters and police clinging to trees in the water told Fritz and others in the airboat to save the three civilians first.

David Blackburn of Spring Grove, Minn., died before the first rescue boat arrived, when he was pinned between his car and a tree in the rising waters.

His wife, Dawn, and a friend, Terri Peterson, were in a car that was swept off County Rd. 6, about 2 miles west of La Crescent, and into the creek.

Blackburn was one of seven to die in the weekend flash floods in southeastern Minnesota.

But for the heroics of Fritz and others, the tragedy at Pine Creek could have been worse.

Fire Chief Bernie Buehler said it was "nothing but a miracle and the grace of God" that prevented more deaths.

The drama began about 1 a.m. Sunday. Nelson and others, including a group from the La Crescent Volunteer Fire Department, responded to the call for help.

Little Pine Creek was a roiling torrent, blasting through the woods. "I've never seen such turbulent water, such violent water," Buehler said.

Nelson said that when he arrived, he could hear the women screaming for help. "And I could hear the guy yelling. I heard his last cry" as the water rose over him, he said.

La Crescent police officer Mike Ernster, 31, brought a small duck hunting boat, loaded it with life jackets, and motored out, hoping to bring life jackets to the stranded women.

"He didn't make it far before he capsized," Nelson said. "We thought we lost him, but he was in the trees. He hollered and said he was OK, and said to save the other people first."

Within minutes, rescuers launched a flat-bottomed boat.

With emergency lights and floodlights in the boat illuminating their way, three firefighters -- Bill Schuldt, 30; Morry Welch, 35, and Shawn Mahoney, 33 -- motored out into the swirling waters. Despite his protests, they pulled Ernster in, then headed for the two women farther downstream.

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