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Body found near sunken barge on Okoboji, search for 12-year-old continues

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Officials cling to hope of finding boy

Divers continued an extensive search on Monday for a missing boy involved in a barge incident Saturday evening on West Lake Okoboji.

Twelve-year-old Colin Helmers and 31-year-old Matthew Molacek, both of Estherville, were reported missing Saturday evening, while removing docks from the lake.

"We're very optimistic we'll find the boy," said Mark Petersen, of the local search and rescue team. "It's tough, it's very tough, but we'll keep going."

Helmers was known to be an avid swimmer, and rescue teams are taking that into consideration in the continued search.

Petersen and other rescue volunteers said they are committed to trying their hardest.

"When the boy's mother looks at you and asks you to find her son, it motivates you to keep looking," said Dickinson County Sheriff Greg Baloun. "We'll do everything we can do."

Molacek, whose body was recovered Monday afternoon, worked for Donaldson Docks, Inc. Colin's father, Randy Helmers, owns the dock company.

Helmers and Molacek may have encountered problems after removing a dock near Wahpeton at approximately 4:15 p.m. on Saturday.

Dickinson County officials received a phone call from a friend who had spoken with Molacek at approximately 4:30 p.m. Saturday. The call informed officials that Molacek was experiencing problems with the barge and was looking for a boat to tow it to shore.

Search and rescue team members soon began the search for the missing barge and its occupants.

"The fireboat and other boats went out and searched until approximately 2 a.m. Saturday night," said Baloun.

The barge was located the just before sunset on the following day - at the bottom of West Lake Okoboji.

"The problem was that we didn't know where to send divers at first," said Baloun. "We didn't know where to start looking."

Sonar and GPS systems aided in the effort to located the sunken barge. It was located off of Gull Point in about 65 feet of water. Divers marked the barge and ended the search for the night. The boat, owned by Randy Helmers of Estherville, was described as being 28-feet long and shaped like a horseshoe. Divers briefly surveyed the wreckage, but were unable to make a determination on why it sank.

"We'll look into that more when we do a formal investigation and retrieve it," said Baloun. "Right now, we're focusing on recovering the victims."

While the cause of the incident remains undetermined, authorities say gusting wind and low water temperatures may have played a part in the incident. Lake temperature in West Lake is approximately 54 degrees.

"It's pretty cold water," said Dickinson County Sheriff Greg Baloun. "Without protective clothing, the water temperatures were definitely a factor in this incident."

A grid search of the area where the barge was discovered began at 8 a.m. Monday with three different dive teams including the Okoboji Underwater Search & Rescue team. Other rescue personnel from throughout Iowa and surrounding areas are also aiding in the recovery effort.

"Sunday we had 47 volunteers," said Baloun. "Today (Monday), we have more than 60 from three states - 25 of them are divers." Dogs trained to detect human scent are also helping in the search.

At about 12:35 p.m. Monday afternoon, divers discovered the body of Molacek. He was discovered approximately 30 feet south of where the barge sank Saturday evening in about 65 feet of water.

"The barge is laying right beside what many people here refer to as 'the hole," said Mark Petersen, spokesman for the Arnolds Park/Okoboji Fire and Rescue Team. "The hole is 136 feet deep."

Petersen said diving conditions were mixed for the recovery operation on Monday. High winds above the water require the fireboat to be anchored in place by a cement block. Divers wear protective wet suits to protect them from the cool lake temperatures, and visibility is 10-15 feet. However, depths of more than 60 feet are considered hazardous for divers, so the teams are exercising extreme caution throughout the search operation.

Divers said they would continue to search until dark Monday night. Search and recovery operations may continue for several days, officials said.

* Report courtesy of the Dickinson County News.

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