MISSOULA – Two snowmobilers who died after plunging into a lake’s frigid waters were taking a fairly common shortcut home by venturing onto the ice instead of sticking to a road around the lake, Missoula County sheriff’s officials said.
Seeley Lake had yet to completely freeze over, however.
The bodies of Derek Flesch, 25, of Pablo, and Kurt Starkel, 28, of Belgrade, were found floating a few hours after the accident Friday night at the lake 30 miles northeast of Missoula.
A helicopter crew spotted them from the air. The victims were wearing avalanche air bags they had inflated but were floating face-down, sheriff’s officials said Saturday.
A companion of the snowmobilers rescued a third, unidentified man who fell in by pulling him out with a rope. The 45-year-old was hypothermic but recovering at a hospital.
The group had come over a nearby pass and spent the day in and around Seeley Lake, Deputy Bob Parcell told the Missoulian.
They had dinner at a pizza restaurant and went onto the ice on the way home.
“It’s not uncommon. A lot of people do that,” Parcell said.
Once on the lake, the snowmobilers needed to get off the ice at Seeley Lake Campground, he said, but had spread out and strayed toward open water.
“They ended up going farther north, where it’s deeper and doesn’t freeze over,” Parcell said.
The first two snowmobilers made it across. When they heard a cry for help, one circled back and crawled close enough to the open water to be able to throw a rope and rescue the man.
The other snowmobiler who didn’t fall in called 911 around 6:45 p.m.
Rescuers weren’t sure if Flesch and Starkel had made it across, so they used spotlights to search the lake from the shore. It was too dangerous to send crews into the icy water at night without knowing the men were alive and could be rescued, Parcell said.
“We called, and their phones were still ringing, but they weren’t answering,” he said.
The helicopter crew arrived about three hours after the men went into the water.
The weather in Western Montana has been unusually warm and the lake has been taking a long time to freeze over, said Kurt Friede, owner of Kurt’s Polaris in Seeley Lake.
“We haven’t advised anyone to go out on the lake yet this year,” he said.
The snowmobilers may have become lost in the dark and, lacking previously laid snowmobile tracks to follow, missed where they were supposed to return to shore, Friede speculated.
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