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Rescuer sees the light: Man finds North Dakota hunter suffering from exposure

Whitey Bommersbach found a disoriented goose hunter in the cattails behind him about 6:10 a.m. Thursday while driving along Highway 11 north of Rutland, N.D., on his way to work. Michael Vosburg, Forum Photo Editor

Whitey Bommersbach was driving to work about 6 a.m. Thursday when he noticed a flash of light off to the side of Highway 11 in rural Sargent County, N.D.

"I just happened to look out in the countryside, and I saw a light out in the water and the cattails," said Bommersbach, a county highway worker.

He stopped his pickup and shouted toward a flooded marsh area to see if someone needed help.

"I hollered and hollered. Pretty soon, I heard something," Bommersbach said.

"A hunter had gotten disoriented or something. He wouldn't have lasted too much longer," said Bommersbach, who hustled the cold, wet man into his pickup truck.

"His eyes were froze shut. His mouth was froze shut. He couldn't hardly say nothing," said Bommersbach, who phoned the county shop and had fellow workers call an ambulance.

As they waited for help, Bommersbach said the man, identified by the Sargent County Sheriff's Department as John Utecht of Victoria, Minn., near the Twin Cities, eventually warmed up enough to hand Bommersbach the keys to a nearby truck, where Bommersbach found Utecht some dry clothes.

"I sort of had to smack him a couple of times to keep him from slipping off into a coma," Bommersbach said.

"He kept saying, 'He was stuck. He was stuck.' He wasn't making any sense," Bommersbach added.

An ambulance took Utecht to Oakes (N.D.) Community Hospital.

A hospital spokeswoman said she could release little information about the incident but said a man was treated for exposure Thursday morning and that he was no longer at the hospital.

Contacted by phone Thursday afternoon, Utecht's son, Zach, said his father was en route to home and feeling much better than he was earlier in the day, when the hip waders he was wearing filled with water while he was stalking snow goose in the predawn darkness.

"It was pitch black and he got into the cattails, and he went through some water. He got himself into a little bit of a bind," Zach Utecht said.

According to the National Weather Service, early morning temperatures in Sargent County were around 19 degrees. Winds of 5 to 10 mph created a wind chill of about 5 degrees.

Bommersbach said the light that caught his attention while he was driving came from a flashlight Utecht had strapped to his head.

He added that Utecht's clothing was so frozen his knees wouldn't bend when Bommersbach tried to get him into his pickup.

To keep Utecht alert and awake, Bommersbach said he tried to keep him talking.

"I said, 'This will be a story you'll tell your grandchildren.'

"He (Utecht) said, 'Oh my God, if you didn't come along. If you didn't come along.' ''