The five men were fishing from the banks of the Mississippi River in south Minneapolis Thursday evening when the skies went dark and rain began to fall.
Jose Luis Rosas, his father and uncle took shelter behind a steel gate in a dry concrete culvert near the spot where Minnehaha Creek empties into the river. The other two in the group lagged behind, finding shelter along the bank.
Within minutes, rain was pounding down. “It came out of nowhere,” said Rosas, 27, of Minneapolis.
Suddenly, water began rushing into the culvert. The three had no idea they were standing in a stormwater outlet that empties into the river. As rain washed across city streets, storm sewers quickly filled, sending a torrent of water through the culvert toward the river.
“We never thought water would come out [of the culvert],” Rosas said. “By the time we saw it, it was too late.”
The rushing water rose over their shoes, then above their knees. They jumped onto the metal gate and climbed, trying to stay above it. They held on tight as the water’s force shook the gate.
“We were panicking,” Rosas said. As the water got deeper, faster, louder, their bodies numbed. They screamed for their friends. No answers came back.
“We thought about letting ourselves [drop] into the river,” Rosas said. “But we said we have to hold on a little bit more.”
Eventually, they made their way to the front side of the gate. Rosas reached for his phone and called 911.
“I was screaming, and the dispatcher had to tell me to settle down,” he said.
There was no address, no cross street to give the dispatcher. The only landmark was that the site was on the Mississippi near a culvert and Minnehaha Creek.
“It’s a nondescript area,” said Minneapolis Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto.
“In these rescue situations, time is critical,” he said. “The longer it takes for responders to find the people who need help, the more chance there is of people getting hurt. … It was a challenging situation.”
Fortunately, he said, park police on duty knew the area and found the men — still gripping the gate.
If the trio hadn’t climbed up, the water would have been over their heads, Ohotto said. And the rapid current could have swept them into the river.
“Once you’re in the river, the odds are not on your side,” he said.
The officers found what they could — two ropes and a life jacket — to keep the men safe until the Minneapolis Fire Department, which is skilled in technical rescues, arrived.
“Time was to everyone’s advantage,” Ohotto said.
The rain — more than a half-inch had fallen in a little more than an hour’s time — eventually diminished, and gradually the water in the culvert went down.
Fire Capt. Staffan Swanson said his crew guided the men off the gate and to safety — along with their tackle boxes, which they had held onto all that time.
“Yeah, we really love fishing, and we didn’t want to lose them,” Rosas said, laughing. “Some people love their cars; we love our fishing tools.”
Eventually they’ll return to the river to fish again, Rosas said. But they know now to stay away from the culvert when it rains.
“I’m going to tell all my family to not go there,” he said. “None of us knew water would come out of there.”