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."

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.

"Then the lights turned upside down, and everything went dark," Nelson said.

The four rescuers, wearing life jackets, were washed downstream. They, too, found trees to grab.

The current "felt like being pulled behind a boat by a ski rope," Schuldt said. His jacket snagged on the boat, adding to the panic. Mahoney told him that if he didn't make it, "You tell Lisa [his fiancée] I love her."

Flashes of lightning lit the eerie scene.

Fritz, a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer, arrived about 2:30 a.m.

His 17-foot flat-bottomed aluminum airboat has an airplane propeller powered by a 350 horsepower engine. The propeller is in a steel cage behind the pilot's seat. The craft can skim over sandbars and debris. But it has no reverse and needs a wide clearance to turn around. The six survivors were clinging to the treetops, Fritz said, in about 15 to 20 feet of water.

"The concern was if a log or branch hits my prop, my prop will explode, and we're dead in the water. And then we're going to sink, because there's no floating in that current," Fritz said.

Despite the risk, the 46-year-old didn't hesitate. "You do what has to be done. Yes, it was a very high-risk rescue in conditions that you don't train in. But anyone else with that kind of equipment and training would have done the same thing."

Fritz operated the airboat, while other rescuers pulled people in, one trip at a time.

"When I looked at those trees, I said a little prayer ... 'God, make sure there's room on the other side of those trees to turn my boat around.' And then we headed into the woods. I was hitting trees and banging off them."

Said Fritz: "The entire time the river is going up and down, it's very turbulent. It was pitch black. And it was raining harder than you've ever seen rain come down. The noise from the river was so loud you could hardly talk."

He had rescued Welch, Dawn Blackburn, and Ernster, then went out a fourth time to get Schuldt and Mahoney, the two remaining firefighters.

"When I got in line to save them, they each pointed to another tree and said, 'Don't get us, get her.' I didn't realize there was another victim from the car. So I drove by them and we pulled another female [Peterson] out of the tree."

He then made a fifth trip to get Schuldt and Mahoney.

"I knew I didn't have enough room to turn around, but you have to go," he said. His boat smashed into the trees, but didn't flip. "Someone above me was helping me out," he said.

They made it safely to shore. It was about 3:30 a.m.

Fritz, a conservation officer for 22 years, said he doesn't consider himself a hero.

"It was a team effort. I was doing the job I was trained to do," he said. "I'm a God-fearing man. Those people had a purpose yet, and I was there to help them. I'm just thankful."

Said Buehler: "The heroes were each and every man."

Doug Smith • 612-673-7667 Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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