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A cool-headed 5-year-old girl and some resourceful neighbors teamed up to avert what could have been a boating tragedy involving a White Bear Lake family Sunday in Wisconsin.
James Braaten, 31, his two daughters, ages 3 and 5, and a 1-year-old nephew were cruising on Lake Holcombe, about 60 miles northeast of Eau Claire, Wis., on Sunday morning when the 1-year-old fell from the 17-foot runabout.
According to Chippewa County undersheriff Capt. Eugene Gutsch and resort owner Dan McConnell, here's what happened:
The boat was moving at a slow speed near a no-wake zone and the boy was wearing a life vest. Braaten, who was also wearing a life vest, tried to retrieve the boy, but fell into the water as well, apparently knocking the boat's inboard motor into reverse. Braaten grabbed on to the boat, but the propeller severely cut his leg and the boat began moving in backward circles while the 1-year-old remained adrift and crying.
McConnell was alerted by a daughter who was on the Isle Bay Resort dock about 60 feet away from the boat. He and a resort guest jumped onto a pontoon boat and approached the runabout, which had come close to hitting the boy in the water. McConnell said he and the guest shouted to the 5-year-old to pull the key out of the ignition, which she did, stopping the boat. Gutsch called it "a tremendous feat."
"She was a pretty smart, smart little girl," McConnell said.
McConnell and his guest were able to retrieve the boy from the water and the two girls from the runabout. Braaten, who had let go of the runabout, somehow was able to get close to the dock, where McConnell's daughter and a friend were able to pull him to shore. McConnell brought the children to the resort while emergency workers tended to Braaten.
Braaten was listed in fair condition at Luther Hospital in Eau Claire on Monday. Family members declined to be interviewed about the events.
"It could have been a lot worse," McConnell said. "There are a lot of channels on this lake where there's nobody around. It was lucky for them."
Both McConnell and Gutsch also said they were relieved everyone on the boat had been wearing a properly fitted life jacket -- or a life jacket at all.
"Unfortunately we're used to a lot more tragic things happening on our lakes," Gutsch said. "This could have had a terrible, terrible, terrible ending. But with quick action by the people at Isle Bay and the 5-year-old, we had a very good outcome."
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646