Vang Houa Thao was the oldest boy in a family of eight children, competitive, smart, a college graduate with a job in the finance industry in the Twin Cities area.
But when the 27-year-old went canoeing on Sunday with two friends on tiny Twin Lake near the Little Canada/Vadnais Heights border, he made a fatal mistake.
He didn’t wear a life jacket.
“It was a ‘guy thing,’ ” his sister, Maiya Thao, 30, of La Crosse, Wis., said.
Her brother, not a good swimmer, apparently drowned when the canoe overturned. About four hours later, his body was pulled from the lake by members of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Water Patrol and Dive Team, and family and friends grieved — and shared his story as a way to warn anyone headed onto the water.
“He could be here if he had a life-jacket,” his brother, Chia Thao, 25, said.
Vang Thao grew up in La Crosse. Kou Xiong, an elementary school classmate, was with him when they launched the canoe Sunday morning from a friend’s house.
The weekend had been an eventful one for the Thao family. Vang Thao, who had moved to St. Paul, attended a cousin’s wedding. His brother and sister were back home celebrating another sister’s graduation from Western Technical College in La Crosse.
Xiong, still dazed after his friend’s body was recovered, recalled that the water was cold, and there was panic. Xiong was helped from the lake by a neighbor, he said. He remembered his childhood friend as kind and outgoing.
As the eldest son, Vang Thao was a leader of the family, Chia Thao said. Vang was “tough,” he said, but he always looked out for his siblings, always “wanted better for you,” the brother said.
“He had so much going for him,” Chia Thao added.
“It’s so unreal,” Maiya Thao said.
His brother and sister wanted it known, too, that there were, in fact, life jackets available at the home from which the three friends launched their canoe.
Staff Writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.