A duck hunting trip for three firefighters turned deadly Wednesday when their small boat capsized and one man drowned in the wind-whipped Clark Fork River.
Richard Brown’s waist-high waders filled with water and pulled him under. He never resurfaced, Bonner County authorities said.
Brown, 35, was a lieutenant with the Kootenai County Fire Department. Divers failed to find his body after a seven-hour search of the swollen river Wednesday.
The other two hunters, Bradley Belcomt, 25, and Dustin Thurman, 23, managed to fight the current and swim about 75 yards to an island. Thurman is also a Kootenai County firefighter and Belcomt is with the Hayden Lake Fire Department.
None of the men wore life jackets. Authorities said their 12-foot aluminium boat was overloaded and too small to handle the rough river.
“One witness said the water line was inches from the top of the boat. It was so low in the water he thought it was a pontoon boat at first,” said Bonner County Undersheriff Nick Krager.
The surviving hunters were rescued by Pat Bistline and Terry Gonzales, two Bonner County men who happened to be hunting ducks nearby about 8:30 a.m.
“I saw the boat, turned around to look for birds and when I looked back the boat was gone,” Gonzales said. “I saw some splashing and one guy swimming, then another popped up. I thought there was a third guy but I didn’t see him.”
The men struggled for shore as Bistline and Gonzales boated toward them. The soggy, shivering hunters then yelled at their rescuers to look for Brown, pointing to a spot where he went under.
“We went to the capsized boat hoping he (Brown) was still under it,” Bistline said. “Then we went to all the gear floating in the water, picking up duffel bags and backpacks to see if anyone was attached to it.”
Bistline called 911 on his cellular phone. He and Gonzales then ferried the hunters across the river to a boat launch, about 24 miles east of Sandpoint. From there, an ambulance took the men to Bonner General Hospital where they were treated and released Wednesday. Neither of the men were available for comment.
“They couldn’t believe what had just happened. One guy was in shock emotionally, and the other was shivering from the cold,” Gonzales said.
“One guy said he tried to help (Brown) but realized he wasn’t going to make it if he stayed in the water,” added Bistline.
He remembered helping the men put the craft in the water days earlier. They told him they had been hunting the mouth of the Clark Fork River for nine years.
“I was amazed they were going out in such a small boat,” Bistline recalled. “I hate to say it, but the boat was just plain overloaded.”
Sheriff Chip Roos said the capsized firefighters could have spent hours freezing on the river bank if it wasn’t for Bistline and Gonzales.
Seven Bonner County divers, several from Montana and four boats searched all day in the 8-foot-deep water where Brown sank. Flood gates at the Cabinet Gorge Dam, several miles upstream, were partially closed so divers wouldn’t be swept away by the current.
Authorities will search the river again this morning, hoping to find Brown before the dam releases a gush of water that will wash everything in it’s path into Lake Pend Oreille.
Brown, who has a wife and daughter, worked nearly two years for the Kootenai County Fire Department. He was a member of the hazardous waste and special rescue teams. At a banquet last week, his fellow firefighters gave him an award for devotion and dedication to the department.
“He’s certainly not the kind of guy you would expect this to happen to,” said Kootenai County Fire Chief Don Donart. “We are still in shock about it around here.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Map of area
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