The three men had been best friends since kindergarten, growing up near picturesque Lanesboro in the southeastern corner of the state. They left a downtown Winona tavern together at 1:15 a.m. Sunday, all passengers in a sport-utility vehicle driven by a woman they had just met. Her SUV plunged into the icy Mississippi River.
Three bodies have been recovered, and divers continue searching for a fourth victim.
“They did everything together so it’s not surprising to the family that the three of them would have stuck together,” said Ron Ganrude, chief deputy of the Winona County sheriff’s office.
Tipped by sonar, authorities recovered the third body around 1:30 p.m. Monday. He was Blake Overland, 28, of Stewartville, Minn., who recently moved to Winona.
The body of the driver, 36-year-old Christina Lee Hauser of Winona, was found belted in the SUV, 20 feet deep in water when a diver connected a winch and the vehicle was hauled to the surface at noon Sunday.
Several windows were broken, but investigators aren’t sure yet if the windows were cracked by trapped passengers or from the impact of the crash.
Matthew Patrick Erickson, 30, was also found belted in the SUV. Searchers called for lights as they attempt to find the fourth victim, Andrew Kingsbury, 29, of La Crosse, Wis.
Ganrude said Hauser was out socializing with some co-workers when the three friends from Lanesboro started chatting with her. She might have been giving them a ride home, he said.
Investigators didn’t immediately say whether alcohol contributed to the crash.
“They were at a drinking establishment and I assume they had something, but I don’t know if it played a factor in the accident,” Ganrude said.
He said the vehicle of one of the three friends was found about a block from the bar and family members hadn’t heard from either Kingsbury or Overland. Their cellphones were off.
As dive teams using ice saws continued searching for a fourth body Monday, the news traveled quickly 40 miles south to Lanesboro, population 743.
“We all knew them, we’re a very small school,” said the woman who answered the phone at Lanesboro High School and declined to give her name.
“It’s too fresh here,” she said, adding that all three were “good kids,” active in sports and other school activities. Two of the victims graduated in 2003 and one in 2004.
According to Facebook pages, Hauser was from Nebraska and working as an administrative assistant at a Winona health clinic.
A family member of Erickson’s in rural Chatfield, 20 miles northwest of Lanesboro, declined to talk about the accident. Erickson listed Lewiston, 15 miles from Winona, as his home on Facebook and said he worked for Benson Farm Services. Kingsbury was living across the river in La Crosse, Wis.
Overland’s Facebook page listed Winona as his home and said he worked at Xcel Energy.
“The assumption is two friends came to his place, the three met up and drove one vehicle to downtown Winona,” Ganrude said. “It was still sitting there, less than a block from the bar and it seems reasonable to believe they were probably in the vehicle when it went into the river.”
The Sheriff’s Department responded to a call at 7:20 a.m. Sunday reporting car tracks and damage consistent with an accident at Riverview Drive near the intersection of Second and Huff streets.
Responders found a license plate, purse and other debris on the shore near a broken guardrail.
Winona County Sheriff Dave Brand said dive and rescue teams from Winona and La Crosse used an underwater camera to locate the vehicle and pulled it from the river. The car was upright and its air bags had been deployed.
Brand said the car was taken to a nearby heated garage for an investigation. The bodies were taken to Rochester for autopsies.
The cold weather, with biting winds, made recovery efforts difficult. The 20-foot-by-30-foot hole cut with saws to recover the vehicle froze over during the night and required ice chain saws to crack new holes.
“There is some current at 20 feet, but we don’t believe the bodies would travel too far from where the vehicle went in,” Ganrude said. “It doesn’t typically take the bodies a long way.”