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Walker firefighter Gary Bilben, at right, raced the victims of a watercraft accident to shore Saturday. At far left they are Kenneth Thompson, a Nevis resident, his son, 20-year-old James Thompson, and 19-year-old Justine Christopherson. The three were rescued with moments to spare after their hovercraft amphibious vehicle stalled, then sank on Island Lake. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Three rescued from icy lake waters

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news Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

A daring and dangerous rescue mission by a platoon of emergency personnel successfully pulled three people from the frigid waters of Island Lake south of Nevis Saturday noon when their hovercraft broke down and sank.

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Ambulance personnel immediately began treating the three, 48-year-old Kenneth James Thompson, his 20-year-old son James Patrick Thompson and 19-year-old Justine Renae Christopherson, for hypothermia after the amphibious vehicle they were in broke through the ice several hundred yards from shore.

Authorities said jagged ice punctured the pontoons under the hovercraft, the motor stalled and died and the hovercraft began sinking.

The call came in just after 11:15 a.m. Thompson owns a cabin on the island on the lake and the three were headed to it when the craft sunk with an inch of ice on the lake's surface.

Firefighters, emergency medical technicians, deputies and ambulance personnel flocked to the scene.

All three victims were conscious and walked to the ambulances with some help from emergency crews. Kenneth Thompson was clad only in a T-shirt and jeans. All three were drenched.

The hovercraft had no life jackets aboard.

Rescue personnel from the Nevis Fire Department, Nevis First Responders and North Memorial Ambulance tried frantically for about 45 minutes to reach the three and called the Walker Fire Department for help.

Nevis' rescue pontoon couldn't maneuver in the ice. Hubbard County Emergency Management Director Brian Halbasch and an unknown firefighter worked themselves to exhaustion trying to push the craft toward the stranded and sinking victims. The two were swimming behind the pontoon.

Cass County sent its dive team when a Hubbard County dispatcher pushed the "all call" button to alert every possible mutual aid agency.

Ambulance personnel began timing the operation when the watercraft sunk, adding to the urgency of the rescue. One EMT announced each minute passing that the three were in the water.

Traditional rescue pontoons and a paddleboat were unable to reach the three. Crews simply ran out of rope to pull the crafts out to the victims, much less get the rescue boats through the broken ice.

It was a heavy-duty hovercraft from the Walker Fire Department, the only one in the area, that was launched shortly after noon and successfully retrieved the victims about 10 minutes after 12.

They had been in the water 14 minutes.

"Two more minutes and they wouldn't have made it," said one rescue worker.

Ambulance personnel and First Responders immediately began treating the three for hypothermia.

Three air ambulances were called in, but all three victims were taken by ground ambulance to St. Joseph's Area Health Services and treated for hypothermia.

Numerous agencies responded including Nevis Fire & Rescue, Nevis First Responders, the Hubbard County Sheriff's Department, North Memorial Ambulance, Hubbard First Responders, the Cass County Dive Team and the firefighters from Walker.

Walker's Fire Department struggled to get the hovercraft launched. It bounced off trees, a boatlift and vegetation down a hill off Chokecherry Lane in Crow Wing Township.

The Thompsons' phone line was only taking fax calls Monday, so the victims could not be reached for comment.

Hubbard County authorities warned, "current ice conditions are not safe for travel or recreation."

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