Tori Henderson didn’t feel entirely safe of late riding with her boyfriend on his snowmobile. So Wednesday night, the 20-year-old woman from Luck, Wis., put on a helmet and instead hopped on a different snowmobile with a friend driving.
And off the two whirring machines went, three friends and Balsam Lake tavern co-workers gliding up frozen Bone Lake. The fast-paced tandem ride came to a sudden halt, however, when the snowmobile carrying Henderson crashed, leaving the two men trying in vain to save her life.
She died on the lake east of Luck after she struck a large ice fishing trailer about 10 p.m.
Nicholas Krenz, 21, was arrested on suspicion of being drunk while operating a snowmobile. Krenz, who lives in the Twin Cities and grew up in St. Croix Falls, Wis., was not hurt. He remains free pending charges.
The boyfriend, Thomas Mergens, said Friday night that the “bottom line is if she was riding with me, we would be watching TV right now.”
Before the crash, Krenz and Henderson were on a northbound snowmobile that was closely trailing the one being driven by Mergens, traveling between the Polk County lake’s two islands and the eastern shore. Sheriff Peter Johnson said that Henderson “typically rode with Krenz because her boyfriend [Mergens] drove too fast.”
However, Mergens explained, a couple of weeks ago Henderson fell from his snowmobile while he was driving and twisted her ankle. And that’s why, he continued, she chose to ride with Krenz Wednesday night after the three had been at the house that Mergens and Henderson share just east of Bone Lake.
As they were going along on a quick refueling trip at what Mergens estimated was 45 to 50 miles per hour, “I noticed there were no headlights behind me.” He said he turned back and saw “Nick was crying and my girlfriend was lying there. He was in shock.”
A former Marine, Mergens said he could see Henderson had “traumatic head injuries” and wasn’t breathing. “I told Nick to call 911, and I told him what to say,” Mergens said. “I must have done CPR for 20 to 30 minutes.”
Sheriff’s deputies arrived and saw Henderson was dead. They gave both men field sobriety tests. “I passed, and he failed,” Mergens said. “If he was over the limit, it was not very much.” The sheriff said Krenz made a “last-second” maneuver to avoid the ice fishing trailer, and “it looks like he took a left and tossed her to the right. … He tried to avoid it.”
Henderson struck the unoccupied trailer, and the snowmobile either slightly hit it or missed it entirely, the sheriff said.
Henderson, who had moved not long ago from suburban Little Rock, Ark., had worked at the Thirsty Otter Tavern and Resort in nearby Balsam Lake for a little more than a year as a server. Mergens is a full-time chef there; Krenz a part-time cook.
A fundraiser for Henderson's family has been scheduled for Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. at the tavern. At roughly 5:15 p.m., 20 lanterns will be released on the lake nearby to mark the 20 years of Henderson's life.
"With very heavy hearts we invite you to come and help us celebrate her life and the wonderful person that she was," read a notice on the tavern's Facebook page.