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Heroism, changes in Riverside Dam helped to save two lives in Grand Forks

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Heroism, changes in Riverside Dam helped to save two lives in Grand Forks
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

GRAND FORKS - Beside some quick-thinking heroism from people out walking in the dazzling white but warm Saturday in East Grand Forks, modifications to Riverside Dam on the Red River years ago likely helped save the lives of two snowmobilers who drove over the dam.

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One of them, Donn Hilde, 36, was in satisfactory condition in Altru Hospital Sunday night, after being pulled by three passers-by from the ice-rimmed frigid waters below the dam.

The other, Bruce Carter, 23, was able to walk out of shallow water tumbling over the top of the dam and get to shore on his own.

Both men are from Grand Forks. The Polk County Sheriff's Office is investigating the double accident that could have ended so much worse. Like drivers of cars and trucks, snowmobilers must obey laws about speeding (50 mph on the river) and careless and negligent driving, law enforcement officers say. No one has been cited in the accident.

The fact it was the nicest day so far this year meant people were out enjoying the mid-March sun along the still-frozen Red, close enough to see Hilde and Carter go from the ice to the water over the dam. That maybe made all the difference.

It's the same site that 10 years ago took the life of Josh Collette, 21, who went over the dam on a snowmobile. His body never was found.

An older man snowmobiling with Collette on Jan. 15, 1999, was behind him and saw him go in and was able to stop in time and go get help. The man saw Collette, separated from his machine, surface at least once in the open water beyond the dam, according to Polk County's sheriff at the time, Doug Qualley. That indicated Collette got beyond the undertow near the dam, Qualley said.

(Because Minnesota law says its jurisdiction of the Red River goes to the North Dakota shore, the Polk County Sheriff's Office normally handles investigations of accidents on the river.)

In the 1980s, Riverside Dam was a true, abrupt "low-head" dam that had a deadly undertow on the downstream side known for causing the deaths of swimmers over the years.

Low-head dam

About 20 years ago, the dam was improved, to a modified low-head dam with a three tiers of flow over the dam, making it safer, said Al Grasser, Grand Forks city engineer.

That's likely why Collette wasn't trapped in the undertow of the dam, but apparently was pulled downstream, Grasser said Sunday.

After five months, law enforcement officials finally called off the search for Collette's body in July 1999, although his family and friends continued for some time longer.

Only two weeks after Collette disappeared over the dam, a 36-year-old man drove a snowmobile over the dam, bailing out in time and walking to shore across the ice. The snowmobile sank.

An empty snowmobile helmet reappeared periodically in the water, and then sank again out of sight, in the first days of the search for Collette.

Although there was a buoy on the river ice warning of the dam back in 1999, Collette's family lobbied City Hall in Grand Forks to erect more explicit warning signs along the north-flowing river south of the dam. At first, the City Council voted against the idea. Members who opposed it said it would open up the city to more liability and lawsuits if accidents happened away from the dam. Now the signs are up, leading many to wonder how Hilde and Carter failed to realize the dam was there.

Improvement after Flood of 1997

After the Flood of 1997, as part of the city's federally funded flood control project, the dam was improved again, this time turning it into a rock rip-rap dam, with nearly 400 feet of graduated descent lined with boulders and rocks north of the dam, downstream. It allows fish to more easily move past the dam, and no doubt helped give Hilde and Carter a better chance of surviving an accidental snowmobile jump over the dam, Grasser said.

That comports with what the rescuers saw Saturday.

East Grand Forks Police Officer Tony Reznicek, 28, was off duty out walking on the Minnesota side of the river Saturday shortly after noon, with his wife, Shannon, and mother, Peggy, walking his 1-year-old Springer spaniel, Lily, when he saw two snowmobiles streaking north on melting snow on the frozen Red River, right to the Riverside Dam.

The first rider hit the dam, Reznicek said, "and I saw his sled kind of buck up in the air, a short hop." That was Bruce Carter 23, of Grand Forks. His green Arctic Cat ended up on its side about 15 feet down the rip-rap rock of the dam in shallow, rippling water. Carter appeared to be sitting on the rocks in the water for a time, said Reznicek, who was paying more attention to the second snowmobile.

"From what I could tell, the second sled went airborne, and the rider separated himself from the snowmobile, kind of jumped off. The whole time I was running toward him because I knew it was going to be a bad deal."

"I think he landed on the rock dike, and the sled continued further, into the open water. He then rolled off the rocks and he submerged for a short time, then he ended up on the very far north side of the open water with just his upper arms and head above water, clinging to the ice. Right when I saw it happen, I was dialing my cell phone to call the police department ... and explained what was going on, and I requested police units and Altru ambulances and water rescue because I knew we had at least two victims in the water."

Reznicek wasn't watching the clock Saturday and isn't sure exactly when it all happened, or how long it took, except it went fast, he said Sunday.

His call came in at 12:30 p.m., according to the police department.

" I hung up my phone and took off my jacket because I might need it to throw to the guy in the water. I ran down and took a quick look at the ice, and it looked to be fairly safe, enough to hold me. And I grabbed (Hilde) and held him and kind of pulled him up, and then the second rescuer, Steve Rand, came up, just a few seconds behind me."

Rand had been out walking with his two young daughters when he saw Reznicek running down to the river. He followed, figuring something was wrong, soon saw what Reznicek saw and followed him out on the ice, while his daughters helped watch Lily.

"Once we got his shoulders out of the water, Steve kind of held him and I ran back to shore and had my wife throw me the dog leash," Reznicek said.

They looped the rope leash around Hilde's shoulders, under his armpits and struggled to get him up on the ice.

"He started talking about how cold he was and that he couldn't hold on much longer. We were attempting to pull him up one more time, but with the current, he was getting pulled so hard, we couldn't pull him out."

Rand said Hilde, "a pretty big guy," told him he couldn't feel his legs.

By this time, Carter had walked from his overturned Arctic Cat on the rip-rap, to shore and was being helped by Shannon and Peggy Reznicek, who gave Officer Reznicek's jacket to Carter to warm him up.

Reznicek's mother then ran out on the ice to help her son and Rand, who were struggling just to keep Hilde from going under.

The plan was to hold on until the emergency teams arrived, Reznicek said. "But for how cold he was and how tired he was, I didn't feel there was enough time to wait any longer. We really had to get him out right now. As my mom and Steve held him, I kind of snaked my arm down under the ice and found his waist and grabbed his belt. "

In an instant, his arm went numb with cold, so much that he couldn't feel anything, so he had to peer down to see where to move his hand to grab Hilde's belt. "Then, the three of us made three really big pulls, and the victim helped kick, and we got him up on the ice," Reznicek said.

The four-year veteran officers quickly checked Hilde for any obvious injuries, although "he was so numb he couldn't feel anything."

He and Rand then each grabbed an arm and dragged Hilde on his back, backward, to shore. They quickly stripped and cut off his clothing and began trying to warm him up with police jackets. Soon, firefighters and ambulance crews were there with blankets. Hilde was placed inside a big warming bag and carried by six people up the riverbank to an Altru ambulance.

Hilde was in satisfactory condition in Altru Sunday night.

"When we first got there, he had just -- his elbows and forearms were horizontal and his head was against the ice. That's all that guy had holding on to when we grabbed him."

Rand said Hilde had one glove on and mostly was holding on with one hand.

Hilde was very thankful, Rand said, and told his rescuers, "My wife is going to kill me."

Reznicek said he was so impressed with his mother and with Rand, "for coming out and assisting with the rescue because I really think it shows a lot about their character, that they are willing to risk their own lives to try to rescue this guy. Where, I am more obligated to, because of my profession, to help and react."

The response time of the police and firefighters from both cities, and ambulance crews and sheriff's deputies, was "very impressive," said Reznicek, who had a unique perspective to watch it all happen after his phone call.

And it ended way better than might be expected, he said.

"Twenty seconds more, and it could have been a much different story."

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