On a steamy Sunday afternoon, as canoeists converged on a stretch of the St. Croix River, 14-year-old Taw Meh stepped off a sandbar and disappeared.
About two hours later, a dive team recovered her body in 9 feet of water, not far from where she went under.
Taw, of St. Paul, was on an outing with a sibling and friends when she was swept away by the fast, deep current shortly before 3:30 p.m. Witnesses saw the girl, who wasn't wearing a life vest and didn't know how to swim, pulled under, Polk County Sheriff Peter Johnson said Monday.
Johnson said Taw and her companions were on a sandbar south of Rock Island. It's about a half mile north of the Franconia Township landing and about halfway between the typical canoeing route from Taylors Falls, Minn., to the boat landing at Osceola, Wis.
"The water looks calm on the top, but it's deceiving," said Mike Dorsey, chief of the St. Croix Falls, Wis., Fire Department, which helped search for Taw's body.
Dorsey said firefighters respond to emergencies "fairly often" on the river south of Interstate State Park where channels are deep and unpredictable. Because of those deep drop-offs, swimming is prohibited in that area, he said.
Taw's drowning illustrates the danger of being caught unaware in open water — nearly half of all drownings occur in natural settings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — and serves as a reminder of CDC research showing members of minority groups are more likely to be victims of drownings than whites.
On Monday, Taw was mourned on a Facebook page dedicated to news about Karenni immigrants.
A year ago, Tou Hu Vang, 21, of Coon Rapids, drowned in the St. Croix on Memorial Day trying to save his 11-year-old nephew, who slipped off wet rocks while fishing. Vang jumped into the river to rescue the boy — who eventually was saved by another man — but Vang was caught in the fast current, bobbed up and down a few times, and disappeared.
That drowning occurred just south of the interstate highway that crosses the St. Croix River at Taylors Falls — and north of Sunday's drowning.
Taw and her companions had rented two canoes at a well-known business, Taylors Falls Canoe and Kayak, on the Minnesota side of the river. Co-owner Amy Frischmon said Monday she didn't know how many people were with Taw, but she said life jackets are given to every passenger.
Those 12 or younger must wear the jackets, according to federal requirements, she said. It wasn't clear Monday whether Taw wore her life jacket before arriving at the sandbar.
Taw had been a student at the Community School of Excellence, a K-8 Hmong language and culture charter school on St. Paul's North End.
Asians/Pacific Islanders between the ages of 10 and 14 are twice as likely to drown in natural settings as whites, according to the CDC, one of many disparities helping drive a YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities effort to teach self-rescue skills to minority children.
The Safety Around Water program, now in its eighth year, provides water safety instruction to 4,000 children a year, many of them first-generation immigrants not yet fully aware of the rules and risks of being on open water.
"We talk a little bit about river currents," said Lindsay Mondick, director of aquatics for the YMCA.
She was at the Hillside East Apartments in New Brighton Monday working with 14 children in the first of five sessions in which she hopes they master a "Swim, Float, Swim" technique.