Kayaking tragedy claims two

Rescuers save six family members

A family outing turned tragic for a Lovell family Monday night when their kayaks capsized in a sudden windstorm on Big Horn Lake, dumping the family of eight into the water and costing them the lives of two young boys.

Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn said John and Janice Harder of Lovell and children Katie, Anne, Johnny, Cecilia, Joseph and Mary, ranging in age from 3 to 11, went on the family kayaking trip Monday around 6:30 or 7 p.m., launching from a protected cover about a mile to a mile and a half north of the Kane boat ramp.

After they had been on the lake for a while, having ventured beyond the cove, a sudden, intense windstorm blew up – almost a microburst, Blackburn said. John Harder and oldest daughters Katie (11) and Anne (9) made it back to shore with the help of another kayaker who was on the lake, while Janice and the other four children were scattered by the wind and high waves.

John drove to Bentonite Performance Minerals, where he works, to summon help, and sheriff’s deputies, Big Horn County Search and Rescue members, National Park Service employees, BPM employees and other volunteers from Lovell launched a massive search by land and water.

Much later that night, Janice and youngest daughters Mary, 3, and Cecilia, 6, were rescued – clinging to each other in the cold water, and the two girls were flown to St. Vincent Hospital in Billings.

The two boys, Joseph, 4, and Johnny, 8, were unresponsive when they were pulled from the water and were pronounced dead at North Big Horn Hospital in Lovell.

Blackburn said all of the Harders were wearing life preservers when they went out on the water, and with the large thunderstorm that hit north Big Horn County Monday afternoon having passed, John and Janice felt it would be a good evening to go out on the lake with the family.

“They are very family oriented,” Blackburn said. “They enjoy kayaking and bicycling together.

“This was a good family and a family that made reasonable choices but got bit hard by Mother Nature. She wasn’t willing to give us a break last night, either. The community is really feeling this right now, and our heart goes out to the family, members of the Catholic Church and the community for their loss.”

Blackburn said searchers fought extreme winds and high waves that not only made searching by boat difficult but hampered efforts to spot the victims clinging to life in the water.

“There were a lot of hometown heroes out there last night,” Blackburn said. “A lot of people put themselves in harm’s way… A lot of rescuers went above and beyond the call of duty last night for that family, and while it is a tragedy, eight went into the water and eight came out – under very adverse circumstances.

“Last night, with a single call and some scanner traffic, our community came together in a big way. We couldn’t have done it without the community. A special thanks to all of the volunteers who donated their time and equipment.”

Blackburn gave special thanks to Search and Rescue Lt. Dennis Woodward and Lovell Fire Chief Jim Minchow, who handled the incident command center at the lake, and said the unsung hero was dispatcher Gail Parker, who handled the calls of more than 35 responders for several hours.

An outing gone bad

Blackburn said the Harders launched their seven kayaks in a protected cove north of the Kane boat ramp off the John Blue Road between 6:30 and 7 p.m. Monday. Another kayaker from out of state was also in the water. After paddling in the cove, they ventured out into the lake, the sheriff said. All were wearing life preservers.

Blackburn said the cove is directly east of the Big Island in the wide part of Big Horn Lake south of Horseshoe Bend past the Narrows and north of the causeway.

“At some point the family ventured out into open water,” Blackburn said. “A witness watched as a sudden microburst of wind came up – a very severe windstorm that created whitecaps and high waves. The family separated because of the wave action and the wind.”

John Harder left his kayak and began swimming with two of the children – 11-year-old Katie and 9-year-old Anne – toward the east shore and back toward the cove in what Blackburn called “a herculean effort.” At that point the other kayaker launched his kayak and assisted one of the girls to shore while John helped the other girl to safety.

Janice and the other four children were still in the water, and light was fading, so John got in his pickup and raced to BPM, Blackburn said, alerting his co-workers that his family was in the water and in trouble and asking them to call 911. The call to respond came in to the Big Horn County Dispatch Center in Basin, relayed from the Lovell Dispatch Center, at 7:52 p.m.

“Every spare person at BPM immediately left and responded directly to the causeway to do anything they could to assist,” Blackburn said. “Frankie Rohrer Jr. and others were able to make visual contact with Janice and three or four of the children about 100 yards from the west bank, fighting the wind, (which was blowing from the southeast). They came in and out of visibility with the swells and whitecaps, which were estimated to be over five feet in depth.”

Deputies and search and rescue squad members also responded, some hurrying to get boats in the water, along with ambulance and other emergency personnel.

Blackburn said the response was swift.

“The time from the 911 call to the first boat in the water was 28 minutes – Barry Wilske’s team,” he said. “That’s impressive.

“I stopped on the causeway and located the victims with binoculars about 400 yards north of the causeway and 100 yards east of the west bank. I said to myself, ‘I need 20 minutes of daylight and a drop of 20 knots from the wind.”

The first responding boat stopped briefly on the causeway, and Blackburn told the crew to launch and that he would get them a landmark – locating some cottonwood trees close to where he could see the family members in the water. As the first boat left around 8:20 with Wilske and David Baker aboard, there was just enough light to see the tree line to the west, the sheriff said.

The rescue boat quickly ran into trouble in the rough water.

“Barry got out to mid-channel and I saw his boat go straight up in the air,” Blackburn said. “That’s when I realized how deep the waves really were. Then Joe Prosser and Will Anderson launched a second boat (around 8:30). Darkness was falling very fast.”

Blackburn said the Wilske boat made several attempts to reach the west side but the channel just west of the Big Island was “hell for them,” he said, noting, “There was so much wind right there in that micro-area where the worst of the waves were.”

The Prosser boat, launched around 8:30, was larger and was able to break through the channel, reach the west side and begin to search.

At 8:38 p.m., a call went out to the Lovell Fire Dept. to bring lights and sweep the west side of the lake, and a call went out to the community to bring heavier boats to buck the waves.

Blackburn called the response humbling, noting that the Search and Rescue brought a larger boat from Horseshoe Bend, and boats were manned by community members including Brad Haskell, Ken Grant and Bruce Jolley. The Park Service Maintenance Dept. launched a barge from Horseshoe Bend, manned by Mike Durtsche and others. No other Park Service boats were available to respond, Blackburn said.

“It was dark, and we had no longer any sight of the victims,” Blackburn said. “It was reasonable to hope that they had turned west with the wind and made shore and were working toward the Kane Cemetery. They were familiar with that area. We had three different ground teams on the west bank of the lake, and the search area was expanded to three miles of shoreline.

“The search included searchers putting on chest waders and walking through the swampy water and through the driftwood and snakes and muck in the dark. Our ground-pounders were exhausted when they got back.”

Larger boats began arriving between 9 and 10 p.m., taking to the water, and Blackburn said re-interviewing witnesses led the search team to expand the search in the water, feeling that the family members could be separated. Deputies and BPM employees also started to search the eastern shore.

Three kayaks were located as the search continued soon after 10 p.m., but there were no traces of the family members. Then fire department searchlights began spotting items in the water, and Blackburn said the water search focused on the area south of the Big Island.

At 10:57, a boat piloted by Brad Haskell with Zac Haskell, Greg Hess and Deputy Darold Newman on board reported that they had found a boy and that CPR was being administered. It was 4-year-old Joseph.

“The winds had abated to two or three feet of chop, and they were able to start seeing things,” Blackburn said, noting that the wind was now coming from the west.

The boy was rushed by ambulance to North Big Horn Hospital, where a trauma team had been activated, however the boy did not recover from what Blackburn described as exposure to the elements and he was pronounced dead.

Meanwhile, the Haskell boat returned to the same area and soon found mother Janice and daughters Cecilia, 6, and Mary, 3, clinging together in the water, reporting the find at 11:12 p.m. When the three were found, Janice was performing rescue breathing for Cecilia, who was in grave condition, Blackburn said. All three were rushed to the hospital.

“Rescue personnel provided life-saving measures in the ambulance and provided significant care to keep the child (Cecilia) alive,” Blackburn said. “The boat had actually passed them once and couldn’t see them due to the swell. They turned and heard the slightest sound (from Janice) and were able to find her through the swells. She was holding the two daughters.”

Both girls were flown to St. Vincent Hospital in Billings for advanced care, having by this time been exposed to extreme elements for some four hours, much of that time in the water. Janice remained at North Big Horn Hospital.

Before being transported, Janice reported that son Johnny, 8, had become separated from the family during the storm, and incident commanders focused the search on the island and points east due to the wind shift and the fact that his kayak had been found on the eastern shore.

Boats began moving north and east and at 12:02 a.m. the Park Service maintenance barge, manned by Durtsche and Scott Burnham, found Johnny in the water some 50 to 100 yards west of the eastern shore. He, too, was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Search crews were called in, and the last boat was off the water by about a quarter after 1, Blackburn said, with cleanup continuing until around 3 a.m.

Coming home

According to close family friend Dani Higgins, Mary Harder came home to be with her mother at North Big Horn Hospital Tuesday, and was “doing well.” Janice has been in the hospital in Lovell since Monday night, Higgins said, but was also expected to be able to return home soon.

Cecilia Harder has responded rapidly to care at St. V’s, Higgins said, and was expected to return home as early as Wednesday, which Higgins said was “nothing short of a miraculous turnaround.”

“She’s really doing wonderful,” Higgins said.

The community has begun rallying around the Harder family. The Brandin’ Iron Restaurant in Lovell is hosting a benefit dinner this Sunday from 2-7 p.m., and the Shoshone Bar in Lovell is holding a silent auction Saturday at 5 p.m. in back of the bar on the patio.

A fund under the name “Benefit Fund for the John Harder Family” has also been established at First Bank of Wyoming with branches in both Lovell and Powell. Checks may also be sent to St. Barbara’s Catholic Church in Powell at P.O. Box 818, Powell, WY 82435.

“I want people to know what a great family they are,” Higgins said of the Harders. “They are salt of the earth, so family oriented. I think the world of John and Janice. They have such great faith.

“On behalf of the family I want to express thankfulness for the search and rescue people and the people in the community who have done so much physically and with prayers. We are so grateful for the prayers and the support of the community.”

Services for Joseph and Johnny Harder are pending and will be held at St. Barbara’s Catholic Church in Powell.

By David Peck