Terror gripped 11-year-old Calvin Yang on Sunday as the icy, swirling water of the St. Croix River pulled him in and pummeled him.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said Monday, describing what happened the day before when he slipped on a wet rock and fell into the river. “I couldn’t breathe.”
As he spoke, hundreds of people gathered on the rock cliffs above the river near Taylors Falls till dusk Monday to watch two rescue boats search for Calvin’s uncle, Tou Hu Vang, 21, of Coon Rapids, who apparently drowned Sunday when he raced into the water to try to rescue the boy. Vang was quickly caught in the fast current, bobbed up and down a few times, and disappeared.
Another man the family did not know also raced into the river, rescued the boy and got to shore safely.
The tragedy was one of two that played out over the Memorial Day weekend on fast-running, high Minnesota rivers. Late Sunday, the body of a 14-year-old boy was recovered from the Mississippi River near Lions Levee Park in St. Paul Park a few hours after he disappeared while wading with his girlfriend. Friends and family at the scene Monday and on Facebook identified him as Dylan Thorp, a student at Oltman Middle School in St. Paul Park.
The holiday weekend and hot, humid weather drew thousands of winter-weary Minnesotans to lakes, rivers and streams that are high and full of debris.
Law enforcement officials warned boaters, swimmers and anglers before and throughout the weekend that metro-area waterways are more dangerous than usual for this time of year.
Among the warnings was one about the unusually high St. Croix. Another was about high-water restrictions on Lake Minnetonka that prohibited boaters from going more than 5 miles per hour within 600 feet of shore.
Another came from the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, which had advised kayakers and canoers to stay off the 22-mile creek because of potentially dangerous conditions.
‘This is just how he is’
At Taylors Falls, where the river churns through a rock canyon, Vang’s body had not yet been recovered as darkness fell and searchers pulled their boats off the water. Through the day, many people climbed onto tall outcroppings to watch grim-faced searchers work in the swift current.
“I feel sad,” said Calvin, of Braham, Minn., who had gone fishing with his uncle and five other people on what was supposed to be an outing preceding a holiday weekend family barbecue.
Vang’s sister, Darra Vang, said although he was not a good swimmer, he “loves his family” and wouldn’t have thought twice about jumping in after his nephew.
“This is just how he is. He would do anything for anybody before himself,” she said.
When Calvin fell into the river, Vang quickly jumped to save him, but the current moved them in opposite directions, said another sister, Kalia Vang. Another fisherman they didn’t know, several yards downstream, also jumped into the river and saved Calvin.
The brother of Vang’s fiancée tried to extend a fishing pole to Vang, but he was swept under.
Vang was one of 10 children and one of two boys in the family, said his father, Lee Tou Vang.
“I love my son a lot,” he said, sleepless with worry as he watched the search Monday. “I really feel sorry for my son. He’s a nice boy, he’s smart, he’s going to school to get his master’s degree.”
The elder Vang, who came to the United States from Laos 34 years ago, stood in the midst of more than 100 family members and church friends who had come to the river to offer their support and prayer. “They say to me, ‘Don’t feel bad,’ ” he said.
Family members said Tou Hu Vang was studying business communications at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, that he played basketball, and performed rap music. “He’s a 21-year-old with hopes and dreams,” said Vang’s brother in law, Roger Taoly.
“Let’s hope they find him soon so it doesn’t drag out the pain for the family,” Taoly said.
About 40 people from the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office, Taylors Falls Fire Department and the National Forest Service and other local agencies are involved in the search, said Sheriff Rick Duncan.
Water ‘is very deceiving’
Friends and relatives of 14-year-old Dylan Thorp gathered Monday night at Lions Levee Park in St. Paul Park to hold a candlelight vigil. Thorp’s body was recovered from the Mississippi River near the park early Monday morning by a dive team after he disappeared about 5:15 p.m. Twelve divers worked in shifts before the teen’s body was recovered.
Thorp’s mother and other family members declined to comment Monday night. They were gathered near a growing memorial that included a cross, balloons, teddy bears and a colorful stuffed rainbow trout.
Six Oltman Middle School friends who came to the park late Monday afternoon said Thorp was wading in the river with his girlfriend; they described him as a fun kid who loved to fish. The six middle-schoolers were sad and quiet as they built the makeshift memorial to their friend “Thorpie” on the sandy shore.
Nearby, Lori Etzler of South St. Paul was fishing for bass and catfish, and families gathered at picnic tables in the shade along the riverbank. Etzler said she also was at the river Sunday as police and rescue workers searched for Thorp. The river is not a safe place to wade, she said.
“One time I went into the river to get fishing line that was caught,” she said. “The current just pulled me in. That river water is very deceiving.”