Friday, November 22, 2019
About two dozen rescuers worked frantically to recover the body of a pick-up driver as well as the vehicle March 25 in the Straight River south of Owatonna. Ray Eldon Mudgett, 71, of New Richland went off Interstate 35, breaking through the guard rail in the median before entering the river and being swept away by the high waters. It took emergency workers about five hours to recover his body in about 10 feet of murky water.

A DARING, SWIFT MOVING RECOVERY

Rescuers head under dangerous current to recover driver trapped in river

It proved to be a treacherous recovery effort under the fast moving currents of the Straight River that even put the lives of rescuers into danger.

On March 25, dozens of emergency rescuers from two counties converged on the Straight River south of Owatonna to recover the body of a driver who went off Interstate 35 and quickly got swept away by the high waters. After a recovery effort that lasted several hours, authorities identified the driver as Ray Eldon Mudgett, 71, of New Richland. Rescuers initially didn’t know how many people were in the vehicle, but it turned out that Mudgett was alone.

The State Patrol said Mudgett was traveling southbound on I-35 at about 12:43 p.m. when he left the roadway, breaking through a guard rail in the median and entering the river. His vehicle was swept away several hundred yards from where it initially went into the river.

After receiving the initial call, sheriff’s deputies quickly determined it would not be a rescue operation but rather a recovery.

Leading the recovery effort was Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele, who suited up in a gumby suit himself to help in pulling Mudgett’s body from the murky waters of the Straight River. Gumby suits are a special type of waterproof dry suit that protects the wearer from hypothermia from immersion in cold water.

The State Patrol, Owatonna Fire Department, Gold Cross Ambulance, Owatonna Police, Minnesota DNR, Dean’s Towing, the Rice County Sheriff’s Office as well as members of the Owatonna Diving Club assisted the sheriff and his deputies.

“Anytime you can’t control Mother Nature, it is dangerous,” Thiele said of the rising waters from the recent spring thaw. He described the atmosphere as “fast, murky current,” and he estimated the river was between 8-10 feet in the area where Mudgett’s truck went under. “One false move of slipping under the water, you could have been swept down the river and could have another rescue effort on your hands,” he said.

What made the situation chaotic at first, Thiele said, was varying accounts of how many people were in the vehicle. Rescuers initially thought there were at least two people in the vehicle, possibly a child. “We had many inaccurate stories, but we have to check everyone of them out,” he said. “Investigators were able to figure out from relatives that he was by himself.” 

The sheriff strategically placed rescuers and boats both up stream as well as down stream during the recovery. Thiele said there were about 15-20 rescuers and dive team members in the water assisting with the recovery.

Thiele said all rescuers in the water were secured to safety lines during the entire recovery effort. The diving suits feature harnesses that can be secured to safety lines.

During the recovery, the rescuers worked in tandem with another rescuer. “You never want to go out there yourself,” Thiele warned. “You’re always with somebody just in case. We always had everyone looking out for each other.”

Mudgett’s vehicle, a 2013 Toyota Tundra pick-up, was fully submerged in the water with Mudgett seat belted in the driver’s seat, according to Thiele. He said one of the hardest challenges was the ability of rescuers to grab footings anywhere in the water. “The hardest part was not being able to hook onto the pick-up. We couldn’t see what we needed to grab onto,” Thiele added.

It took rescuers about five hours to recover Mudgett’s body from the pick-up. The Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner’s Office planned to conduct an autopsy on Mudgett to determine the exact cause of death.

“It was a great team effort,” Thiele said. “Everyone had a role and everybody knew what they had to complete.”

Thiele was especially happy that everyone got out safely once the recovery was completed. “Unfortunately, we lost a life, but everyone else got out safely,” he said.

Sheriff Thiele said such incidents are mentally challenging for rescuers. “The hardest part of a recovery effort is knowing it’s no longer a rescue,” he said.

It proved to be a treacherous recovery effort under the fast moving currents of the Straight River that even put the lives of rescuers into danger.

On March 25, dozens of emergency rescuers from two counties converged on the Straight River south of Owatonna to recover the body of a driver who went off Interstate 35 and quickly got swept away by the high waters. After a recovery effort that lasted several hours, authorities identified the driver as Ray Eldon Mudgett, 71, of New Richland. Rescuers initially didn’t know how many people were in the vehicle, but it turned out that Mudgett was alone.

The State Patrol said Mudgett was traveling southbound on I-35 at about 12:43 p.m. when he left the roadway, breaking through a guard rail in the median and entering the river. His vehicle was swept away several hundred yards from where it initially went into the river.

After receiving the initial call, sheriff’s deputies quickly determined it would not be a rescue operation but rather a recovery.

Leading the recovery effort was Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele, who suited up in a gumby suit himself to help in pulling Mudgett’s body from the murky waters of the Straight River. Gumby suits are a special type of waterproof dry suit that protects the wearer from hypothermia from immersion in cold water.

The State Patrol, Owatonna Fire Department, Gold Cross Ambulance, Owatonna Police, Minnesota DNR, Dean’s Towing, the Rice County Sheriff’s Office as well as members of the Owatonna Diving Club assisted the sheriff and his deputies.

“Anytime you can’t control Mother Nature, it is dangerous,” Thiele said of the rising waters from the recent spring thaw. He described the atmosphere as “fast, murky current,” and he estimated the river was between 8-10 feet in the area where Mudgett’s truck went under. “One false move of slipping under the water, you could have been swept down the river and could have another rescue effort on your hands,” he said.

What made the situation chaotic at first, Thiele said, was varying accounts of how many people were in the vehicle. Rescuers initially thought there were at least two people in the vehicle, possibly a child. “We had many inaccurate stories, but we have to check everyone of them out,” he said. “Investigators were able to figure out from relatives that he was by himself.” 

The sheriff strategically placed rescuers and boats both up stream as well as down stream during the recovery. Thiele said there were about 15-20 rescuers and dive team members in the water assisting with the recovery.

Thiele said all rescuers in the water were secured to safety lines during the entire recovery effort. The diving suits feature harnesses that can be secured to safety lines.

During the recovery, the rescuers worked in tandem with another rescuer. “You never want to go out there yourself,” Thiele warned. “You’re always with somebody just in case. We always had everyone looking out for each other.”

Mudgett’s vehicle, a 2013 Toyota Tundra pick-up, was fully submerged in the water with Mudgett seat belted in the driver’s seat, according to Thiele. He said one of the hardest challenges was the ability of rescuers to grab footings anywhere in the water. “The hardest part was not being able to hook onto the pick-up. We couldn’t see what we needed to grab onto,” Thiele added.

It took rescuers about five hours to recover Mudgett’s body from the pick-up. The Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner’s Office planned to conduct an autopsy on Mudgett to determine the exact cause of death.

“It was a great team effort,” Thiele said. “Everyone had a role and everybody knew what they had to complete.”

Thiele was especially happy that everyone got out safely once the recovery was completed. “Unfortunately, we lost a life, but everyone else got out safely,” he said.

Sheriff Thiele said such incidents are mentally challenging for rescuers. “The hardest part of a recovery effort is knowing it’s no longer a rescue,” he said.

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Steele County Times & DCI

Steele County Times
507-583-4431
411 E. Main St.
P.O. Box 247
Blooming Prairie, MN 55917

Dodge County Independent
507-634-7503
121 West Main St.
Kasson, MN 55944

Dodge County Printing
507-634-2661
121 West Main St.
Kasson, MN 55944

 

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