Visibility was down to about 100 yards when a Montana Highway Patrol cruiser drove quickly into the Gates of the Mountains Marina on April 28.
Tim Crawford, manager of the marina and its tour boats that take summer crowds down the Gates, went outside to investigate. The trooper told him six people were in the water somewhere out in the blinding snow. Soon Lewis and Clark Search and Rescue, game wardens and an ambulance arrived.
Tim’s mind quickly turned to the outfitted fishing clients he spoke to that morning. Given the conditions, he cautioned that spending the day on the water would not be enjoyable. But they were enthusiastic and had spent considerable time planning their trip and soon the boats left the launch.
Knowing seconds were critical, Tim ran and got his two sons, Chris and Travis. Tim and Travis fired up their new 65-foot tour boat, loaded several emergency responders and headed out into the storm. Chris jumped in a small fishing boat and headed out as well.
“It was the most difficult conditions I’ve ever been in,” Tim said, noting that he has boated Holter Reservoir for more than 40 years. “Search and rescue are great people, but it takes time to get them together and get boats in the water. In this situation, which was unique, time was everything.”
The boats crossed the upper section of the reservoir where it transitions to the Missouri River. It can be a particularly treacherous section of the waterbody where winds coming from the north meet winds from the canyon, and the resulting churn causes waves to peak.
“It was horrible, just a blizzard and it was blowing probably 40 I’d say,” Travis said. “You could barely see the end of the docks, nothing up the canyon, and farther out into the lake the more it deteriorated.”
The boats worked their way upriver and they started seeing debris in the water. They continued until a boat came into sight with one person on top. A second boat then came into view with four people hanging on the side in the 38-degree water.
“We tried to ask them if there was anyone else but at that point they were all too cold, they all just sort of pointed in different directions,” Chris said.
Chris was able to pull one man into the small boat, where he laid down and closed his eyes. They then managed to transfer him to the tour boat, where EMTs began working to warm him.
Travis and one of the emergency responders attempted to throw life preserver rings to others in the water, but the fierceness of the wind made the throw impossible.
“They would fly about eight feet and fly back right at you,” he said. “At that point we had to realign the boat and back in.”
Travis jumped onto the back platform of the boat. One man in the water was able to hook his arm around the platform and Travis successfully pulled him onboard. Others on the upper deck then pulled him the rest of the way.
The second man was virtually unresponsive and could not follow any commands. Travis and one of the search and rescue responders managed to place him in a horseshoe ring life preserver and hoist him onto the deck to the waiting EMTs.
“I would say two were severe and one was into the critical range,” Travis said. “He was extremely cold.”
Emergency responders were able to pull the two other men from the water into their boat.
“They were shivering, convulsing even,” Tim said.
The Crawfords are trained in hypothermia treatment as ski patrollers and were familiar with the state of the body shutting down before death. Tim believed that the men, who had spent more than 40 minutes in the water, had only a short time before succumbing.
“They were that close, ready to give up,” he said. “You looked into their eyes and it was like there was nothing there.”
One of the men later returned to thank them for their role in the rescue. He told the Crawfords that as the gravity of the situation set in, he believed “it was all over,” until the rumble of the boat’s engine cut through the snow and sound of crashing waves.
The conditions were so bad that while attempting to turn back for the marina, they traveled for a short distance in the wrong direction before navigating home. Chris took his small boat to the shoreline, which he says was surprisingly close, and motored back as well.
Once back, they loaded the men into ambulances and took them to St. Peter’s Health. Then more emergency responders returned, and delivered the dreaded news about the sixth angler. Craig Bristle, 63, of Pacific, Missouri, had drowned.
As the Crawfords and others who responded to the scene reflect back on it, they have gained some perspective.
“It was a horrible tragedy that one person was lost but it was dang near a miracle that the other five made it,” Travis said.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton agreed.
“They were at the right place at the right time for the right reason and the more I think about it, they probably made the difference between one fatality and more,” he said. “And we give them thanks for that.”
The official account of the incident says that one of the jet boats was hit by a wave and took on water, causing it to become unstable and swamp. The second boat returned and while loading the others, it also became unstable and took on water. One of the people successfully placed a call to 911, and emergency responders came from Helena.
A combined investigation between Lewis and Clark County and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks did not find any negligence, Dutton said, noting that life jackets were on board as the law requires, although they were not wearing them.
The incident is also being investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard.