Teenager dies after falling through ice -- 'the mouth of the river just swallowed them up'
An ice fishing holiday turned tragic Thursday night when two teens pulling their fish house with a snowmobile plunged into open water on the 3rd Crow Wing Lake south of Nevis.
One teen died; the other tried in vain to rescue his friend and was overcome by exertion and the cold.
The victim was identified as 18-year-old Lukas Neubarth of Brownton. After the search for his body was called off late Thursday, the Lakes Area Dive Team returned to the scene off Chokecherry Drive Friday morning. The body was recovered shortly after noon in 12 feet of water.
The survivor, Thomas Plendl, also 18 and from Brownton, was treated at St. Joseph's Area Health Services in Park Rapids for hypothermia and released later Thursday night.
Brownton is a town of around 800 located an hour west of Minneapolis.
The boys, Lukas' brother, Zak, and father Bill Neubarth, were staying for the weekend at a cabin on the lake.
"They had caught their limit in sunnies and were hauling the fish house back," said resident Jim Fox, who rendered first aid to Plendl. Sheriff Cory Aukes said that likely saved the boy's life.
The teens apparently became separated from the father and son Neubarths. Jim Fox said Bill Neubarth was stranded in slush across the lake on an ATV and watched helplessly as the snowmobile headlights disappeared underwater.
The two teens hit an area of open water likely obscured by heavy snow and darkness, authorities said. The area, which has seen previous fatal accidents, is where the Crow Wing River flows into the chain of lakes. The snowmobile and fish house both went into the water.
Plendl managed to haul himself up onto the ice shelf, stripped off his clothing and tried to re-enter the water to save his friend.
Jim Fox said the boy's hands were so cold he couldn't clench Neubarth's clothing to haul him to safety. He said Plendl let go and couldn't locate his friend underwater.
"It was 7:15 and we saw a head and somebody beating on our French doors," said Jim's wife, Gwen Fox. The frightened couple thought they were about to be robbed.
When they opened the door a distraught young man, clad only in his underwear, was standing at the door.
"He was very distraught," Gwen Fox said. "His pants were down around his ankles. He was barefoot.
"He said they'd gone through the ice and he'd tried to grab his friend and pull him out," Gwen Fox said.
The couple raced Plendl to the shower, where they stood him in cool water for nearly two hours to gradually thaw him out.
"He couldn't feel his feet," Gwen Fox said.
"We gave him a Poweraid to stabilize his electrolytes," Jim Fox said.
Jim Fox said the upset teen told them how he'd stripped off all his clothes to lighten his load once he reached the ice shelf.
"He had slush and crushed ice all over him," Jim Fox said. "He'd dropped his jacket and shoes."
Gwen kept talking to the boy to make sure he didn't lapse into unconsciousness while Jim called 911.
Rescue crews got stuck as they braved the elements at the remote location off Chokecherry Drive.
The Foxes said a tow truck had to be called in after the ambulance and rescuers got stuck.
Plendl told the couple he'd tried dragging the Neubarth, pleading with him to strip off his wet clothes also.
"He just didn't," Jim Fox said of the victim.
Plendl, exhausted, raced to shore for help when Neubarth disappeared.
Numerous agencies descended on the scene in Crow Wing Lake Township, including Hubbard County, Nevis First Responders, Hubbard First Responders, the Walker Fire Department and Lakes Area Dive Team.
Rescuers described very tough conditions, slush and snow on the lake, zero visibility and snow on the roads that hampered their rescue efforts. They suspended the recovery operation until daylight Friday. The river's current at the mouth was very fast, they said.
The Foxes opened their home to firefighters, divers and rescue crews to change clothes and warm up. Divers were using dry suits. They said a steep drop-off was located at the mouth of the river. In one spot they could stand but the ground dropped off to a 20-foot depth.
To add to the troubles, the Walker Fire Department's hovercraft had difficulty maneuvering in the ice and slush, a diver said.
A snowmobile took Plendl to the waiting ambulance that had to stop at the public access. Plendl was clad in sweat pants Gwen Fox gave him, sox and warm blankets.
"I don't think they were too familiar with the lake," Aukes said of the two teens. "The mouth of the river just swallowed them up."
Both Aukes and Jim Fox said the area is very dangerous.
Jim Fox, a member of the lake patrol, said this is the third death he's seen in that area since he moved there in 1994.
He voiced frustration Friday that a former sheriff ignored his request to put markers in the area to warn boaters and ice anglers of the river.
"I told them I'd pay for them myself and maintain them," Fox said. "They turned me down flat" for liability reasons.
The couple had just returned from a holiday trip.
"We were just meant to be here," Gwen Fox said.
The anglers were staying in a cabin a long ways up the road.
The Foxes estimated if they hadn't been home, Plendl would not have been able to run much farther for help, The Fox home cabin was a few hundred yards from the accident scene.
After the recovery, one corner of the fish house was still visible above the ice. The snowmobile was recovered from the lake Sunday. Although still attached to the fish house, the portable structure could not be recovered.
Chokecherry Drive saw another mishap in November when an Island Lake resident and two others fell through the ice when their hovercraft malfunctioned.
All three victims were rescued that day in good condition.
Neubarth is the son of Bill and Tammy Neubarth and a senior linebacker at GFW Senior High School in Winthrop. Bill Neubarth teaches health and physical education at Lester Prairie. He also is a football coach.
Coach Pat Hentges described Lukas Neubarth as, "A quiet leader who demanded excellence."
The funeral service will be Wednesday, Jan. 5, at 11 a.m., at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Brownton.
By Monday, numerous friends of the two had posted a single flame on their Facebook profiles reading "Prayers for the Neubarth and Plendl Families." A Facebook page in Lukas Neubarth's memory was also set up. By Tuesday morning it had over 1,500 followers.