A northwestern Minnesota teenager is being honored posthumously with a prestigious national heroism award for rescuing her younger relatives from the turbulent waters at the bottom of a dam last summer.
The Bagley area family of 18-year-old Raina Lynn Neeland will receive one of just six Citizen Honor Awards from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, the same organization whose members receive the nation's highest military decoration for bravery.
On Aug. 17, Neeland and seven children — siblings and cousins — were going over the off-limits Clearwater Dam in Sinclair Township and into the river when they got caught up in the roiling waters and could not free themselves.
Neeland pulled some of the youngsters, the youngest 6 years old, to safety before she went under where water from Clearwater Lake flows over the 14-foot-high dam into a river with the same name.
Bystanders performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Neeland, who was unresponsive. Witnesses estimated that she had been in the water for about 10 minutes.
"I am very proud of her," said Clearwater County Sheriff Darin Halverson, whose agency was part of the emergency response to the scene about 30 miles northwest of Bemidji.
Each year, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society conducts a nationwide search to select individuals in four categories and one organization to receive its Citizen Honors Awards. For 2021, Neeland is among five people and one organization being honored from the 75 who were nominated. Her nomination was submitted anonymously, a society spokeswoman said Friday.
The teen is one of two being recognized within a specific Citizen Honor Awards category, Single Act of Heroism, which the society gives to Americans "who accomplish extraordinary feats of heroism by risking their lives for the benefit of others in a dire situation."
She and the others selected will be honored in Boston on Sept. 10 during the society's annual convention. Each living honoree will be given a medal, and awards given posthumously will be framed for presentation.
The coronavirus pandemic shelved last year's convention, so those who would have been honored then are being included this time around. That includes Cody Runyon, of Rochester. In June 2018 at age 13, Cody teamed up with a woman and pulled a 12-year-old fellow swimmer from the bottom of an apartment pool after the younger boy sank and become unresponsive.
The society pays for travel expenses to the festivities for recipients or their representatives, the spokeswoman said. Neeland will be represented by her grandmother, and Cody will attend with his family.
At the dam where Neeland died, the water level was considerably higher that day due to a large amount of rain.
Sheriff Halverson said "there's been no physical progress" in blocking people from reaching the water in the dam, which is owned by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). He said officials have balked at putting up a chain-link fence because of aesthetic concerns.
A meeting is scheduled with DNR officials and owners of private land, where there is a parking lot that dam visitors use. The hope, the sheriff said, is to find a way "to keep people from parking up there."
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482