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River accident kills one

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River accident kills one
A 42-year-old Bismarck man died Wednesday afternoon when the vehicle he was in broke through the ice at about 12:30 p.m. and sank into the Missouri River about 15 miles south of Bismarck.

Two other Bismarck men got out of the vehicle in time.

Dan Phillips, 47, and his son, Dan Phillips Jr., 28, of Bismarck, told their story from a still-running U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' pickup. The survivors were waiting for the Burleigh County dive team to pull their friend, Bradly Clark, from the river.

Phillips said he purchased a 1994 Chevrolet Tahoe on Friday and asked his son and Clark to go on an off-roading excursion to test it out.

"When we first got down here, there was so much steam we couldn't see anything," Phillips said.

Phillips said he drove out onto the ice, thinking it was a sandbar, and tried to turn back when he noticed open water. That's when he heard a crack and the front of the vehicle started to sink. Phillips tried to back out while his son jumped out a back door.

"I just freaked. I panicked," Phillips said. "I just rolled down the window as far as it would go and tried to squeeze out."

The vehicle sank fast, front first.

Phillips Jr. said his foot got stuck while he was trying escape, but he worked it free and began pulling his dad out of the sinking vehicle.

Clark was unable to escape.

"The last words I heard out of him were 'Dan, help me,'" Phillips Jr. said.

Clark was trying to kick out the back window as the vehicle sank deeper into the more than 12 feet of water.

Phillips called 911 on his cell phone, and he and his son waited about 15 minutes next to the hole in the ice, only about 10 feet from the open water.

That's where they were when men from the Burleigh County Sheriff's Department, the Bismarck Rural Fire Department, the corps and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department arrived.

In the about 18-below temperatures, more than 20 men immediately began to form a life line.

With rope strung between them, they spread out across the ice. Slush formed at their feet. The lead man jabbed a sharp pole into the ice in front of him as he walked slowly toward the opening. When he reached it, ladders were laid down. Later an inflatable raft was brought out.

They had reached the hole when the Burleigh County dive team arrived.

As men routinely returned to vehicles to warm up, the dive team began to set up.

Deputies clad in outdated black snowsuits, fur lined hats and heavy winter coats spotted the river bank.

The four divers wore blue, insulated, dry suits.

The first attempt to dive made by Deputy Gary Schaffer was unsuccessful when an air regulator froze up. So the dive team returned to their truck to wait for more gear.

Around 4 p.m. it arrived.

Someone's ice house made of tarp and plywood was set up next to the hole as a sort of communications base. More than a dozen firefighters and deputies stood holding ropes as a second diver -- Kelly Leben -- submerged.

The sound of Leben's heavy breathing came from a radio inside the ice house.

"I got him," Leben said after a few minutes.

Leben said the body was caught on something inside the vehicle, and he couldn't pull him free. And even if he could free the body, Leben said he might lose him in the current.

Deputies tied a slip knot on the end of a rope and pushed it to Leben with a 7-foot pole.

After several false alarms, Leben yelled over the radio for the men to pull up the body.

Within seconds the body was pulled onto the ice.

As firefighters wrestled to roll the man onto a stretcher, Leben's voiced blared over the radio.

"Get my helmet off," Leben repeated several times even as deputies were working to do just that.

Firefighters and deputies returned to their vehicles at about 5 p.m. to warm up before they packed up for the day. Also at the scene were Metro Area Ambulance and the Salvation Army.

Phillips and his son were still waiting in the pickup when their friend was pulled from the river. Phillips Jr. had frostbite on his ear, but Phillips wasn't injured.

Phillips was emotional when he spoke of Clark, his friend of 15 years. He said Clark moved to Bismarck from Washington State about five months ago. Clark was staying with him and worked as a carpenter until he injured his elbow recently. Clark had just undergone surgery and was going to return to work.

"I don't know how he didn't get out," Phillips said. "It's terrible. I don't know how to deal with it."

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(This post was edited by Bassmaster-ND on Jan 29, 2004, 4:11 PM)