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3 capsized boats spill 10 anglers into Rainy Lake

Boating accident

Three boats capsized and 10 people were overboard Sunday morning on windswept Rainy Lake until a seasoned local boater and the National Park Service came to their rescue.

Doug Chromy of New Prague, Minn., said he was leading a group of four boats in 3- to 5-foot waves when the smallest boat in the group was swamped by a pair of taller waves. They were passing through the Brule Narrows, about 20 miles east of International Falls, in a 40-mph wind.

"We were going through like 3-, 4-, 5-foot waves. Then a few of them, from where I was sitting in my seat, I couldn't even see over the top of them," said Chromy, 37, guessing those waves were 8 feet or higher.

Chromy, in an 18-foot boat, plowed through the first big wave but figured his nephew in a 16-footer would have a harder time. But he made it through.

"Shortly after it two more came in a row," Chromy said. "I made it through again but he didn't."

The nephew's boat came down hard off the first wave and then hit the second wave, which poured into the stern. He was swamped and sinking into the lake.

That's when things got rough for the other boats in the party. Chromy and his brother in the third boat, both with children on board, turned back to help. His brother pulled their nephew in and Chromy pulled his nephew's friend in. But while Chromy was away from the wheel, another big wave hit them, pouring into the boat. It also started to sink.

"At the same time it was happening to my other nephew in the fourth boat," Chromy said. "A wave rolled into him and he said it was basically 10 seconds and their boat had tipped over."

Three of the four boats were now under water and moving away from each other; Chromy's brother's boat continued to shore, unaware the other three were all swamped.

Chromy's boat by then was completely swamped and floating just under the surface. They were able to stay on it while Chromy called for help on his radio and his cell phone.

Voyageurs National Park officials heard Chromy's "mayday'' call on the marine radio just before 10 a.m. and dispatched two large Park Service boats.

"We had 10 people in the water ranging in age from 8 to 80, and the 80-year-old (Chromy's father) was severely hypothermic when our boats got there," said Jim Hummel, chief ranger for the park.

Hummel said the boats were heavily loaded with camping gear.

"They wanted to get home a little too badly. I'm guessing by the time they realized how bad it was, they had already capsized," Hummel said. "The fact they were all wearing life jackets when they went in made this a successful rescue and not a body recovery."

Hummel praised the effort of Tom Dougherty, co-owner of Rainy Lake Houseboats, for his help in the rescue. The rescued boaters were brought to shore and warmed. The older man was treated at a local hospital for hypothermia but is OK, Hummel said.

"I didn't rescue anybody myself," Dougherty said. "I did some coordination of the search and helped with the determination to see if people were accounted for. The fishermen that rescued them were returning from camping. Those were the guys that stuck out their necks."

Dougherty had some advice for boaters on the lake: Limit your loads. "This year, more than any other year, we've seen a lot of boats of people going camping and they've been grossly overloaded. ... That's unsafe."

But he complimented Chromy's group, who were all wearing their life jackets.

"I thanked them,'' Dougherty said. "It just made it easier on everybody else. It wasn't a recovery."

Chromy said thanks to all the Park Service people and the group of fishermen who pulled them out of the water.

Chromy said he's been coming up to Rainy Lake once or twice a year for about 10 years. He said he's been in water just as big, but this time the quick succession of big waves overcame the smaller boat. The larger boats were swamped when they got sideways while trying to help.

Fortunately the water was about 75 degrees, Chromy said, warmer than they'd ever seen it. Still, his father told him he was exhausted after 15 minutes in it, "basically floating and hoping to survive."