An 18-year-old woman died a hero as she miraculously rescued seven younger relatives from drowning in a treacherous northwest Minnesota dam, according to Clearwater County officials. The incident occurred Monday at 3:45 p.m. at the Clearwater Dam in Sinclair Township, said authorities.
Raina Lynn Neeland of Bagley and seven children- both siblings and cousins - were going over the off-limits dam and into the river when the waters became treacherous.
Neeland was able to pull all the children to safety; the youngest child was six, but could not save herself as she was pulled under the current.
Water from the Clearwater Lake flows over the 14-foot-high dam into a river with the same name that can create extremely hazardous conditions, according to officials.
"We probably would have had multiple fatalities," said Sheriff Darin Halverson reported by the Minnesota Star. "The water is just churning under the dam. She did her part and saved who she could."
Halverson said the dam becomes a "big water slide," which appeals to kids. "The kids like to do that. They use tubes or whatever. Lots of times they go over on their own," he said.
The water level at the dam, owned by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), was considerably higher on Monday due to a large amount of rain recently, said news reports.
Before the tragedy, bystanders rushed to help and pulled an 8-year-old girl from the choppy waters, who had been unresponsive. The young girl survived after someone performed CPR.
Blaze, Neeland's teenage brother, managed to save his 15-year-old cousin who he described as "kind of unconscious." Neelan's brother grabbed his cousin by the ankles and pulled the 240-pound boy to safety, said Jeremy Neeland, Raina's uncle.
Neeland was not as fortunate. Witnesses at the scene tried to perform CPR to resuscitate her until an air ambulance arrived, but medics could not revive her.
Neeland had apparently been in the waters for up to 10 minutes before she was pulled to shore, according to witnesses.
Jeremy Neeland said the children had been swimming in the dam at least three other times this summer, but "8 inches of rain turned the river into a rapid. They didn't realize," he said, "where the undertow was, and then little kids went under."
Sheriff Halverson said there are signs posted at the dam warning people to stay away.
Halverson did not recall any other deaths associated with the dam, which was built in 1931, but said, "we've had some close calls."
"The waters on both sides of the dam are not to be used for fishing, swimming, or thrill-seeking," said Halverson. "When the water level is lower, it's not as dangerous, but it's always dangerous when you are dealing with a dam."
On Tuesday, a township meeting took place pushing for barriers to be installed at the Clearwater Dam as to avoid further tragedies.
Halverson, who tells his own two children to stay away from the dam, said he'd told local officials that chain link fences need to be installed to "keep people out of there. But, said, I don't even know if that's possible," he said in a story in the Star Tribune.
The Clearwater Dam is among 80 others in Minnesota that were classified in 2005 as "drowning machines" because of the strong undertow the water creates, according to DNR's State Dam Safety Engineer, Jason Boyle, and reported by the Star Tribune.
Boyle said placing physical barriers will not prevent access.
"People find a way around them," said Boyle. It's impossible to keep people from finding a way to get in."
Since 2005, the DNA has minimized roughly half the dams' potential dangers by adding rock at the bottom to weaken the current's flow.
This safety measure explained Boyle added, would not likely work at The Clearwater Dam, because "you can't make that opening so small that you can't let a flood get through. ... It could cause the water to go over the top of the road" that runs atop the dam.
A GoFund Me page for Raina Neeland has been created by her cousin Franklin Neeland, according to KARE 11 Media.
Raina was described by friends and famiy as a selfless young woman who "loved nature, fishing and anything to do with the water." She hoped to go into law enforcement one day.
Her grandmother, Lenora Neeland, remembers her brave granddaughter, as a responsible and often helped her care for the younger children.
"If it weren't for her, we would have more tragedies today," she said.
According to a family member, the younger children pulled from the water suffered minor bruises and are back home after being treated at a hospital.
The family hopes to raise $25,000 to help pay for all the costs associated with her funeral. They have already raised $7,613.
"Sorry I'm not great talking about being in need, but right now, I'm hurting from this loss of one of our young family members," Lenora Neeland said. "Thank you all for the support."