Lightning flashed, hail fell and the wind roared as the mostly novice crew aboard a 26-foot boat pulled down the sails and motored for the Minnesota Point sand spit outside Duluth on Saturday evening.
Although they were doing everything right under the circumstances, lightning took a deadly toll as the sailors scrambled through knee-deep water on the spit, trying to hustle everyone to safety, Sgt. Wade Rasch of the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office said Sunday.
"There was a blinding white light and they were all blown off their feet," Rasch said. "They were hollering. It was chaotic."
Skipper John Lintula, of South Range, Wis., told authorities that the lightning momentarily knocked him out and into the shallow water. Tragically, it also struck close to 9-year-old Luke Voigt, who later died in a Duluth hospital, Rasch said. Four others standing in water near the boy were hospitalized with serious burns.
Yards away on the sandy beach, Luke's 7-year-old brother, Daniel, stood unharmed. Their dad, Paul Voigt, who was in ankle-deep water near Daniel, was among those shocked by the bolt, Rasch said.
The excursion had begun about 3 p.m. under sunny skies as Lintula and his wife, Vicky, launched their boat near Duluth. They had invited the Voigt family for an afternoon sail and a hot dog barbecue on the big lake.
The crew of eight included the two boys, their parents, Paul and Lorie Voigt, of Iron River, Wis., the boys' grandparents, Frank and Mary Voigt, of Pierz, Minn., and the Lintulas.
Less than two hours later, about 5 p.m., the Duluth office of the National Weather Service issued a marine weather statement warning boaters to seek shelter because a thunderstorm with hail was sweeping in.
The storm was not severe enough to warrant an official marine warning. But thunderstorms can bring lightning and winds that can capsize smaller boats, said Duluth office forecaster Mike Stewart.
"The storm whipped up very rapidly," Rasch said.
Skipper Lintula gave deputies this account of what happened next:
The crew fought high winds to haul the main sail down and motored toward the nearest land, Minnesota Point, a sand spit that juts about 7 miles into Lake Superior from Duluth, not far from the Duluth-Superior Lift Bridge. The sailboat had a hinged keel, which enabled Lintula to run it into the sandy shore and shallow water.
John Lintula and four Voigts waded ashore. But Frank Voigt, 79, stopped halfway, perhaps to return to the boat cabin, where his wife and Vicky Lintula had sought shelter. When 9-year-old Luke, his mother and John Lintula started back to get the elder Voigt, lightning struck.
Luke was found face down in the water. His dad began CPR. Crew members quickly called for help on a cell phone. It was about 5:30 p.m.
The sailboat was about 2 miles from a spit road, authorities said. The first sheriff's deputies arrived about 6 p.m. by boat from the Lift Bridge. The rescuers took over resuscitation efforts and took Luke by boat to a flatter area, where a helicopter landed, Rasch said.
The chopper flew the boy to St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth, where he was pronounced dead.
Four others were taken to Duluth hospitals with severe, but not life-threatening injuries. The boy on shore and the women in the boat cabin, Mary Voigt, 78, and Vicky Lintula, 50, were unharmed.
By Sunday, Paul and Lorie Voigt, ages 46 and 45, had been released from the hospital. Frank Voigt and skipper John Lintula, 52, remained hospitalized in good condition, Rasch said.
"It's just a shame," Rasch said. He noted his advice to boaters in lightning storms "is to do as they did: Get somewhere low, and get off the water."
Jim Adams • 952-746-3283