Crews hunt for bodies in icy South Dakota river

Rescuers search the Big Sioux River for 16-year-old Madison Leigh Wallace and 28-year-old Lyle Francis Eagletail, who were dragged away by the fast-moving, icy river in Sioux Falls, S.D., as they tried to save the girl's 6-year-old brother, Garrett, Thursday, March 14, 2013. The boy was pulled ashore with minor injuries, but his sister and Eagletail are presumed drowned. (AP Photo/The Argus Leader, Elisha Page) NO SALES

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A man and a 16-year-old girl are presumed drowned in Sioux Falls after a fast-moving, icy river dragged them away as they tried to save the teenager’s 6-year-old brother, city officials said Friday.

Emergency crews continued searching the Big Sioux River at Falls Park, although their focus changed overnight from rescue to recovery, said Sioux Falls Fire Chief Jim Sideras.

Garrett Martin Wallace, of Vermillion, was climbing on rocks Thursday evening when he either fell into the frothing water or became obscured by the gathering foam that towered over him, said Police Chief Doug Barthel.

“It’s hard to say if he actually ended up in the water or not,” Barthel said.

The boy’s sister, Madison Leigh Wallace, jumped into the river to save him but was swept away. Lyle Francis Eagletail, 28, of Sioux Falls, jumped in to help the two but he also disappeared into the freezing water, Barthel said.

Witness accounts differ on whether someone pushed the boy out of the water or he popped up on a rock before being pulled ashore. Emergency workers carried the boy away from the river wrapped in a blanket and he was not injured, Sideras said.

“He wasn’t in that long,” he said.

A witness to the tragedy, Napoleon Ducheneaux, 21, said his friend, Eagletail, fell into the river while trying to help the others. Eagletail was holding onto the girl and boy by their hands before his hands began sliding, then he just “slipped and disappeared,” Ducheneaux told The Associated Press late Thursday.

“These people literally jumped in without thinking of their own safety and trying to rescue that child,” Sideras said. “It’s a very noble act that they did, and they probably contributed to saving that boy’s life.”

Nevertheless, the fire chief said the optimum way to help someone who falls into water is to stay on the shore and mark where that person went in.

Sideras said rescue crews have been working against the river’s strong current, a thick sheet of ice that firefighters are trying to break into pieces, and large amounts of foam, which firefighters were blowing away with water hoses.

The water temperature hovered around freezing, putting emergency crews at risk of hypothermia.

The city of Sioux Falls is named after the Big Sioux River’s cascading waterfalls in Falls Park, a tourist attraction where people often picnic or pose for wedding photos.

It’s a popular spot in the summer and spring, drawing about 525,000 visitors annually, according the local visitors’ bureau. For the first time in months, the temperature rose to around 50 degrees in Sioux Falls on Thursday.

The park was closed Friday as crews continued their recovery effort.

Fatal accidents are rare at Falls Park.

In 2006, the body of 29-year-old Travis Hallan was found just north of the falls after his canoe tipped over. In 1999, 26-year-old Slavisa Andric drowned after losing his footing on rocks at Falls Park. A bystander in 1997 pulled the body of 43-year-old Omar Iasi Ibrahim Warsame from the water below a bridge where he had been fishing.

Barthel said the city could perhaps prevent accidents by fencing off the entire area, but there’s some inherent danger with a fast-moving river meandering through the city.

“The Falls is the crown jewel of our city,” Barthel said. “I don’t think we want to get to a position where we’re going to be totally fencing it off.”


Associated Press writer Kristi Eaton in Sioux Falls and Blake Nicholson in Bismarck, N.D., contributed to this report.


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