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Miracle on Blueberry Lake

This ‘incident report’ might also be called “The-Many-Little-Miracles-at-Blueberry-Lake” or – it might have earned the right to be termed “Fire-In-The-Lake” – but that title has already been taken (Vietnam work). I’ll stick with the former and let you, the reader, come up with whatever works at your end.

It is close to 3:00 PM on July 1, 2014.

Janet Wright (nee Lorentz), age 84, is standing at the window of their long-owned family cabin on Blueberry Lake, in Wadena County near Menahga, Minnesota (Blueberry bush in the Chippewa language).

A little lake (554 acres), it is not offering any pleasant lake time on this day... There are no fishing boats working the water for bass, walleyes, northern or a reputed large muskie.

Winds are gusting to 50 miles-per-hour out of the southwest, and the fairly shallow lake (average depth of five feet) is producing four-foot whitecaps which are breaking over the Wrights’ 40-foot dock which faces, like the cabin, due west.

Like lakes big and small all around the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes – water is high, everywhere – and the surface temperature of Blueberry is about 65 degrees. Heavy snows and a very wet spring have changed water dynamics to a high degree.

It’s time to return to their Bluffton home, carved into the leeward side of the hill that gives the little burg its name (208 folks complete with a Catholic Church of note).

Janet sees a fire on the lake.

The long-retired school teacher turns to her husband Ron, resting next to her on a couch, eyes closed, catching ‘forty’ before heading home – they had planned to leave 30 minutes ago. Three small miracles here. Janet’s observation, a delayed departure, and a shaft of sunlight silvering through the scud . . .

“Ron! There’s a fire on the lake!”

The sky is ‘broken-overcast’ in pilot’s language.

Ron, a wiry 85 from years of farming and carpentering, responds – as he rises – “There’s no fire on the lake!’ – with a small scoff and without really looking.

Together Ron and Janet face west and indeed – there is a ‘fire-on-the-lake’ . . .

They open the front-lake-facing door and walk out on the dock, despite waves quartering onto the deck. The ‘fire’ is coming toward them.

At the same time, Ron and Jan realize the ‘fire’ is a bundled child in an orange life vest. Somehow, a sliver of light broke through ‘broken-overcast’ and lit up the life jacket.

They soon realize that the child is high in the water because a young girl is carrying her on her shoulder as she kicks through the waves and is now just feet from the end of their dock.

Reaching out, they grab the little girl first and then pull the ‘carrier’ onto the dock where she collapses, but not before pointing to her right and the Wrights’ pontoon boat.

“There’s more out there. Please – get your pontoon boat out and save them.”

Janet knows her task is to get the two girls into the cabin and get them dry and warm. They are both shivering uncontrollably.

Ron looks at the pontoon and then to the waves.

He knows that even if he were a strapping 20-year-old rather than an 86-year-old man, trying to put a 20-foot pontoon into four-foot waves is a no-brainer.

By this time, the young mother (which is what she turns out to be, and very small person) has told them that three more people are out on the lake – on a sinking paddle boat. Two young girls ages six and eight, wearing life jackets, are clinging to the overturned hull, and an older man is clinging to the rubber bumper ridge edge of the 12-foot paddle boat designed for two people.

It turns out later that a sixth passenger, a 40-pound brindle brown pit bull bitch, had been aboard and was the likely cause of the device overturning when it jumped off into the waves – probably knowing instinctively that this was a ‘sinking situation’ . . .

At this point, Ron and Janet can get a fix on the paddle boat – 400 or so yards off their dock.

Once the two victims are in the cabin, Ron takes his SUV and heads 100 yards north to the Tom and Jiggs (Janalee) Timm Cabin. He knows them well – they are his daughter and son-in-law... He also knows that Tom, age 55, manager of the American Inn in Wadena, has a lifeguard background, is in excellent physical shape, and has with him his daughter Keeley, about-to-be a senior at St. Benedict’s College in St. Joseph, Minnesota. She too, has a lifeguard rating. Rescue is second nature to Keeley, but more about that later.

Two more small miracles are about to link up with the perfect Deus ex machina – a Honda jet ski that can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in a twist of the throttle and blink of an eye.

Ron gives them the word, and before he’s finished pinpointing the location of the paddle boat, Tom is tightening his life vest. Keeley already has hers on, and together they are on the jet boat and pushing off the launch ramp.

The four-foot waves are no match for the now fired up Honda Jet Ski. Tom and Keeley estimate they were at the site in less than a minute – and, as it seems, not a moment too soon!

An elderly man is clinging by his finger tips to the narrow rubber bumper band that encircles the paddle boat, which is now nose under water, lifting the stern to face the quartering waves.

Two young girls – six and eight it will turn out – are spread out on the upturned hull, crying out for help. The high winds carry their cries into nothingness . . .

With little conversation, Tom and Keeley make the decision that the man might slip away from them, even though he has the presence of mind to cry out: “Save the girls first!!!”

Tom and Keeley follow their own quickly-forming rescue plan – the man will bodily be lifted onto the jet boat and taken to shore. Waterlogged – it’s a task that takes the two of them some doing!

Heavy lifting done, Keeley will position herself on the hull and bring the two girls into her arms. She’ll start talking them “down” from their panic and now near-hypothermia – the water temperature is doing its thing. And the now-prolonged exposure has their teeth chattering loudly and their thin bodies convulsing.

Tom already has the Jet Ski on a wave-topping run to shore, where Ron is waiting at a shallow indent just to the south of the Wright dock. Green marsh stalks bend in the wind as the Jet Ski slides smoothly onto the beach with its first victim.

In a matter of seconds, Tom, Ron and now Janet, too, get the man into a standing position when he says, “I’ve lost my cane!” The trio of rescuers realize he’s in worse shape than they thought.

At that moment the estimated-to-be 75-year-old pitches forward, landing on his face in the shallow water. The threesome lift him to his feet to start the 60-odd-foot journey to “Grandma & Grandpa’s Get-a-way” (or so the sign says) and warmth through towels, blankets, hot cocoa and a place on the floor next to the mother and child already there, still shivering in front of a now-glowing space heater.

Standing once again, he now slips their grasp again and falls backward into the water. It takes their combined strength to get him upright and, finally, to the cabin.

Task done, Tom Timm is once again wave-hopping to retrieve the two young girls being mother-henned nicely by Keeley.

Tom is now on the lee side of the paddle boat – rocking – as he and Keeley make their make their next well-reasoned move: Get the two girls safely into Janet and Ron’s waiting arms.

Keeley will stay with the paddle boat and be the ‘tow-girl’ part of the craft retrieval. Adrift, it will be a hazard when the waves die down and fishermen repopulate Blueberry Lake.

Keeley will later comment that she was somewhat concerned about the bow-down condition of the craft – especially when, out of nowhere – a large rogue wave swept over the drifting craft. It, too, needs rescuing . . .

All of the survivors are now together in the Wright cabin, and Janet, mother-hen-of-mother-hens, has all of them slowly coming back from the precipice of death – and a sad news report that the Fourth of July weekend started with the drowning of three small girls, a teen-age mother and an elderly man – perhaps “Grandpa” .  . .

It was later learned that the brindle-brown pit bull bitch – called “Penny” and likely culprit that caused the paddle boat to capsize – made it to shore and home.

The Miracle on Blueberry Lake could end here, but that would be to toss the baby out with the bath water, so to speak.

Example: How did these people get into this life-threatening predicament?

For openers, they were visitors to the lake/farm compound on the extreme southern end of Blueberry Lake. From their spot on shore, visitors looking at the paddleboat (which, by-the-by, was patched on the bow and elsewhere with copious amounts of Duct Tape) saw an invitation to have fun.

From their visual perspective, the water before them was likely close to glass-smooth and perhaps rather inviting for a paddle boat ride on a craft meant for two. The high tree line behind them kept the wind from churning the water into a frothy death-inducing maelstrom.

Nor would they likely have been told or would have picked up on barely visible visual clues telling them that in addition to high waves just beyond their ‘cove’ – the Blueberry River which feeds into the lake to their almost immediate left – was running high and creating still another current, in tandem with the southwesterly wind-driven waves.

It also turns out that the mother of the two younger children had no idea that the paddle boat with five souls and pit bull had “put-out-to-sea,’ so to speak . . .

Not having met any of the five souls (I did see Penny, the pit bull and caught a peek of one of the two younger girls slipping into an old-fashioned outhouse on the family property), so there is nothing more to report on them.

Ron graciously agreed to motor me over to the ‘family compound’ in order to follow through with the writer’s dictate of “Who-What-When-Where & Why” . . .

As it turns out, the young mother “had taken on too much water, but would probably be willing to talk the day following . . .”

The Duct-Taped death trap was seen pulled well up onto the property, and Ron was told “. . . it was going to the local dump, toot suite!’

So much for interviewing the survivors.

But how about the life-lessons of the fearless foursome – Ron-Jan-Tom-Keeley (RJT&K)?

Lesson One: If you see something abnormal or incongruous, do something about it – Janet and Ron.

Lesson Two: If something needs to be done – assess your assets, prioritize your plan-of-action, and get to it (JRT&K).

Lesson Three: Having made your plan – work your plan! (JRT&K).

Other lessons from Tom and Keeley Timm: Keep your skill sets sharp, your heads screwed on right and tight, and do what your training has prepared you to do!Who knows, there may be other miracles that need addressing down-the-road.

Author, John Uldrich Sr., is CEO of Globien, who just happened to be visiting the Wrights with Janet’s sister – Ann Theriault of Plano, TX. When he heard about this event (the next day), he responded as most writers would – Do the Story! A co-founder of Vexilar, the well-known sonar company out of Minneapolis, he has participated in many search and rescue options throughout his 77 years.