Crew fought severe weather in Lake Superior rescue attempt
By Brady Slater Forum News Service DULUTH, Minn. -- Amid flares dropping from a plane above to illuminate the dark, turbulent, fog-shrouded waters of Lake Superior, a U.S. Coast Guard boat crew battled the elements for hours on Tuesday night, sea...
By Brady Slater
Forum News Service
DULUTH, Minn. -- Amid flares dropping from a plane above to illuminate the dark, turbulent, fog-shrouded waters of Lake Superior, a U.S. Coast Guard boat crew battled the elements for hours on Tuesday night, searching for a man who had been swept from shore near Tofte.
They finally located the man, unresponsive, 400 yards from shore and a half-mile from where he had gone missing - ending a tragic day on the North Shore in which two lives were lost.
Authorities in Cook County on Wednesday identified the two men who drowned as Evan Alexander Johnson, 40, of Menomonie, Wis., and Wayne Louis Hoffman, 66, of Spring Green, Wis.
According to information provided by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and the Coast Guard, Johnson reportedly had gone swimming in Lake Superior at about 3 p.m. Tuesday, after being in a hot tub on shore near Bluefin Bay Resort, about 80 miles northeast of Duluth.
After Johnson showed signs of distress in waves estimated at 4 to 6 feet, Hoffman tried to pull him from the 37-degree water but apparently was swept away by a large wave.
Johnson was pulled from the water about 3:30 p.m. and was later pronounced dead at Cook County North Shore Hospital in Grand Marais.
The search for Hoffman continued into the night, with 11 agencies taking part at the flare-lit scene visible to many residents and visitors along that stretch of the North Shore.
Thomas Spence, who lives about a half-mile from Tofte, said throughout the evening he watched a Canadian Coast Guard C-130 airplane drop flares in a large area offshore from Tofte and Taconite Harbor, turning an overcast and cloudy night into what looked like “a war zone,” said Spence, with multiple aircraft in the sky and at least one Coast Guard boat in the water.
“Flying so low through the smoke created by the flares, it was just an eerie and crazy atmosphere,” Spence said. “I had never seen anything like it over the lake; it was so out of place. They were dropping two and three flares at a time.”
The Coast Guard station in Duluth confirmed Spence’s account.
“With assistance from the C-130 utilizing flares for illumination we were able to find the person in the water” at about 10 p.m., Chief Petty Officer Garrett Kravitz said. “We spotted him from the Coast Guard small boat in the water. As soon as we sighted him we immediately got him on board and started CPR while we transported back to Taconite Harbor where we waited for EMS and they took control.”
Hoffman was pronounced dead by personnel on shore.
Spence said he knew it was a recovery effort in search of a body. He’d seen law enforcement officials in town before dark and suspected something was up. Facebook filled in the rest as posts informed him of the unfolding tragedy. By the time he witnessed the flares, he had driven to his parents’ house on the lake with what he called a “great vantage point” near Taconite Harbor. He brought a flashlight with him and did some searching himself along the shoreline.
“I kind of thought with the direction of the waves and the way they were searching, anything could happen,” said the 41-year-old Spence.
Kravitz described the conditions on Lake Superior as 6-foot rolling swells with winds out of the east.
“It was a moderately rough night,” said Kravitz, who was on the water aboard the 25-foot response boat based in Duluth.
Spence described the conditions along the shore.
“The waves were crashing pretty good,” he said. “A person unaided would not have been able to get in or out of the water. It was still rolling pretty good even at 9, 10 o’clock.”
Just after 10, as crews located Hoffman’s body, Spence watched the flares cease.
Additional information on what led up to the men going into the lake, and on whether they were related or otherwise knew each other, was not available from authorities on Wednesday.
While the Canadian Coast Guard plane reached the scene, attempts to bring U.S. Coast Guard and Minnesota State Patrol helicopters to the search area were unsuccessful because of icing conditions that kept the aircraft grounded.
The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, Cook County Search and Rescue, Cook County Ambulance, Tofte Fire Department, Tofte Rescue Squad, Lutsen Fire Department and Grand Marais Fire Department also were involved in the search.