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Two rescued after 13 hours
By Caroline Downs
One man died after an early morning incident west of Tolley resulted in two vehicles breaking through the ice on a flooded township road.
Dewey Sterling Jones, Jr., 44, a Kenmare resident recently arrived from Avinger, TX, died at the scene as a result of exposure. He was the passenger in a 2006 Chevrolet Avalanche driven by Tricia Els, 45, Tolley.
According to a report by the North Dakota Highway Patrol, the Avalanche and a 1997 Dodge 1500 pickup driven by Rey Els, 46, of Tolley both broke through ice on the closed roadway and sank in approximately six feet of water about 1:30 am Thursday.
The two occupants of the Avalanche escaped the vehicle and climbed onto the roof. Ray Els also climbed out of the Dodge and onto the truck’s roof.
The accident followed several days of unseasonably warm weather in the area, including record high temperatures.
David Stark, fire chief for Tolley Fire and Rescue, said the department received a call late Thursday morning about the three missing people. “We started looking for them about 11:45 am,” he said. “We did not know before then what was going on.”
He was accompanied by four other members of his department, and said the call came as a result of a text message about the victims. “We know the area, and we were scrambling to find them,” he said. “We were the first ones on the scene.”
The incident occurred about a half mile north and one and a half miles west of Tolley.
Stark said the township road had been closed at that location since the beginning of April because of overland flooding in the area. Water depth on the roadway is between five and six feet, while depth in the road ditches is 10 feet or more. A barricade was in place to indicate the road closure, but Stark said the barricade was down when he and his crew were conducting their search. The roadway has not been opened to traffic since freezing over earlier this winter.
Once they located the scene, some of the Tolley Fire and Rescue volunteers wanted to immediately rescue the individuals, but Stark said the situation was too dangerous. He contacted the Renville County Sheriff’s Office and the North Dakota Highway Patrol.
“By 12:20 pm, I was talking to Scott Guenthner of the North Dakota Highway Patrol,” Stark said, “and by 12:30 everybody was notified.”
He also made the decision to call the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge to request the airboat and assistance from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel. “I contacted Duane Anderson [at Upper Souris] and told him we needed the airboat for a recovery operation,” Stark said. “I told him, ‘It’s serious,’ and when the three of them showed up, they were hauling to get to us.”
Anderson, a USFWS biological technician, arrived with Tighe Teets, law enforcement office for the Souris River Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, and Tasha Dolgoff, a USFWS law enforcement officer from Utah currently training with Teets. All three are certified in airboat operations.
The airboat was deployed about a half mile from the accident scene. Teets and Dolgoff removed Tricia Els and Rey Els from the vehicle roofs at approximately 2:30 pm and transported them to the Tolley Fire and Rescue crew, who transferred the two to the Mohall and Tolley ambulances. The ambulance crews transported Tricia Els and Ray Els to Trinity Hospital in Minot.
“Everybody was working hard to rescue the two people who were out there,” Stark said.
Teets and Dolgoff recovered Jones’s body with the airboat, and remained at the scene, as did the Tolley Fire and Rescue members, until nearly 9 pm, to help remove the two vehicles.
Stark noted the Ward County Dive Team assisted with the vehicle removal. The Renville Elevator Co. in Tolley supplied a payloader for those efforts.
Teets explained the USFWS employees continued to help with the extraction by shuttling equipment and divers to the accident site. “The rescue was complete during daylight hours, but the truck extraction was done in the dark,” he said.
According to Teets, the slough was predominantly frozen with pockets of open water and ice thickness up to 12 or 14 inches in places. “It was softer ice,” he said.
Temperatures during the day reached into the low 50s, but winds were estimated at 40 mph with the region under a high wind advisory for much of the day.
Stark said his crew was working about eight feet from the edge of the open water at the accident scene, but two vehicles owned by volunteers also dropped through the ice. The payloader removed those vehicles as well.
The incident remains under investigation by the NDHP and the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation.