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'Horrible tragedy' leaves 2 siblings dead, third hospitalized

Beltrami and Clearwater County sheriff's officials pack up an empty gurney Friday afternoon as a helicopter crew from North Memorial responded after a sailboat capsized on Clearwater Lake, northwest of Debs. A father and three children were in the boat when it capsized. MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER1 / 2
The landing at Clearwater Lake, northwest of Debs, was filled Friday afternoon with rescue vehicles from the surrounding area after a report of a capsized boat with a father and his three children. The father was taken to Bagley Hospital, two children to Sanford Bemidji Medical Center and one was later airlifted to Fargo, N.D. MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER2 / 2

LEONARD - Two children died after falling into a frigid lake, and a third is listed in critical condition after first responders pulled the siblings Friday afternoon from Clearwater Lake.

The children were in a small sailboat with their father, Dan Risland, when it toppled in strong winds. He reportedly told authorities that he attempted to get the children to shore, but struggled in the wind and current.

He then swam to shore and flagged down someone to call 911. Sheriff's dispatchers from Beltrami and Clearwater counties received the call about 3:15 p.m., prompting dozens of first responders from at least eight agencies to scramble to the lake, which is eight miles north of Leonard and nearly 30 miles northwest of Bemidji.

Clearwater County Sheriff Mike Erickson said the first child was out of the water within 30 minutes of the call, but the father reported the children had been in the water 15 to 20 minutes prior to the 911call, WCCO TV reported.

Phil Hodapp, the Beltrami County sheriff, told the Pioneer that deputies found a rowboat to reach the other two children, but deputies had to break into boat sheds to find oars to paddle to them. WCCO reported one child was pulled from the water 100 yards from the shore and another was found 300 yards from shore.

None of the children were responsive by the time they were pulled from the water, but emergency crews desperately tried to revive them, the sheriffs said.

"They were able to bring the oldest one back," Hodapp said Saturday. "It's kind of a miracle the oldest one survived... They had no signs of life."

The two oldest children were taken to Sanford Bemidji Medical Center, and the 8-year-old was airlifted to Children's Hospital in Minneapolis. The 6-year-old died at Sanford in Bemidji, while the 2-year-old was taken to Bagley, where emergency staff worked for several hours before he died.

"No foul play was expected in this terrible accident and we are deeply saddened," Erickson said in a news release Saturday. "We were all struck terribly by this tragedy."

Erickson said the children were wearing life jackets, and all of them suffered hypothermia, which is suspected to be the cause of death for the two youngest children.

The air temperature at the time was 59 degrees, with southeast winds at 22 mph. However, water temperatures of area lakes are in the 40s or lower, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said.

Risland is the mayor of Leonard, a town of about 40 people. He and the children's mother, Ruth Risland of Bemidji, are divorced.

Erickson said more details will be made available after authorities complete their investigation.

In addition to sheriff's officials from Beltrami and Clearwater counties, emergency personnel from Sanford Bagley Ambulance, Bemidji Ambulance Service, Clearbrook Fire Department, Clearbrook Police Department, DNR, North Country First Responders and others responded to the call to the lake, which straddles Clearwater and Beltrami counties.

"It's just a horrible tragedy," said Hodapp, adding emergency crews were emotionally distraught by the turn of events. "It's hitting them hard."

Counseling, known as critical incident stress debriefing, was being offered to all the first responders, he said.

Steve Wagner

Grand Forks Herald Editor Steve Wagner can be reached at 701.780.1104 and He joined the Herald in April 2013, and previously worked as editor at the Bemidji (Minn.) Pioneer and in several roles -- including news director, investigative reporter and crime reporter - at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. His reporting experience includes coverage of Dru Sjodin's disappearance and the federal death penalty case for her murderer, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., along with several investigative projects. In his spare time, Wagner is an avid runner and occasionally writes about his experiences on his blog, Addicted to Running.

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