Iron River boy dies after lightning strikes family seeking shelter with sailboatAs a thunderstorm swirled, intensified and descended over the waters of Lake Superior off the end of Minnesota Point late Saturday afternoon, a sailboat with eight people aboard rushed to the relative safety of the spit’s sandy shore.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
As a thunderstorm swirled, intensified and descended over the waters of Lake Superior off the end of Minnesota Point late Saturday afternoon, a sailboat with eight people aboard rushed to the relative safety of the spit’s sandy shore.
As hail started to fall, and the passengers were scattered on the beach, in the waves and on the boat, tragedy struck from above as a bolt of lightning hit the shallow water near the 26-foot vessel.
“Everyone was blown off their feet. It was like a grenade went off, and there was a blinding flash of white light,” said Sgt. Wade Rasch, an investigator for the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, recounting the words of the boat’s captain.
The person closest to the lightning strike, 9-year-old Luke Voigt of Iron River in Northwestern Wisconsin, died from his injuries, and several relatives, including his parents, Paul and Laurie Voigt, also were hurt. Luke’s 7-year-old brother, Daniel, was on shore when the lightning hit and was not injured, officials said.
On Sunday, parishioners at the Voigts’ church in Lake Nebagamon mourned the loss of a boy the parish priest described as eager, enthusiastic and full of questions about the world around him.
Jon Lintula, 52, and his wife Vickie, 50, of South Range, invited six guests for a boat ride Saturday, including Vickie’s sister, Laurie Voigt, 45, of Iron River and her family — husband, Paul, 46, and sons, Daniel and Luke. Also aboard were Paul’s parents, Mary and Frank Voigt of Pierz, Minn., ages 78 and 79, respectively.
They were all out for a sail when they noticed a dark storm cell approaching, Rasch said. The vessel quickly sought shelter between the rip rap and the concrete breakwater off the end of Minnesota Point — also known as Park Point — near the Superior Entry. The Lintulas’ sailboat was equipped with a hinged keel, allowing them to fold it up and run their boat up onto the shallow, sandy bottom.
Members of the party walked ashore to take shelter on land, but Mary Voigt remained in the cabin of the sailboat, and her husband, Frank, remained standing alongside in the water, Rasch said.
When hail began to fall, members of the party began to wade back to the boat and the shelter of its cabin, Rasch said.
It was about 5:30 p.m. That’s when a bolt of lightning struck.
The lightning appears to have missed the ship’s tall mast, striking adjacent to the boat instead, Rasch said.
“If the lightning hits the mast, it charges the water all around the boat, but Luke clearly got the worst of it,” he said.
The 9-year-old was left floating face-down in the water.
“The best we can tell is that the lightning must have come down either on or near Luke,” said Rasch, explaining that the boy, who was in the water at the time, was much more severely injured than anyone else in the group.
Others in the water nearby included Laurie Voigt, Jon Lintula and Frank Voigt. Paul Voigt was only about ankle-deep in the water, and Daniel Voigt remained on land, Rasch said. The most seriously injured individuals were those who were standing in the water at the time of the lightning strike.
One of the victims was able to call 911 on a cell phone. The Duluth Fire Department, the St. Louis County Rescue Squad, the U.S. Coast Guard, Duluth Police Department and Gold Cross Ambulance were among the agencies who responded to the call.
Because of the difficulty getting to the remote site, which is about two miles from the end of the road at Sky Harbor Airport, about 25 minutes elapsed before firefighters arrived by boat. Other responders followed by boat, all-terrain vehicles, and on foot, Duluth Assistant Fire Chief Jarry Keppers said.
Luke Voigt received CPR on the scene but was pronounced dead after arriving at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center via helicopter.
Other victims were taken by boat and land ambulance to Duluth hospitals.
A medical examiner has yet to determine an official cause of death for Luke Voigt, but Rasch said early indications are that he died as a result of the lightning’s impact. The boy was quickly retrieved from the water, and did not appear to have drowned, he said.
Only one person from the boating party remained hospitalized in Duluth on Sunday evening: Frank Voigt, who was listed in fair condition at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center.
After the incident the sailboat was towed to a dock at Fraser Shipyards, and Tom Crossmon, captain of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad, said it showed no apparent signs of damage.
Father Don Kania, priest at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Lake Nebagamon, where the Voigt family regularly worships, described an uncharacteristic scene at an after-church softball game and potluck Sunday, saying: “Everyone was in a somber mood. The (Voigt) family is in all in our prayers right now.”
Kania referred to the Voigts as “active members of the parish” and said: “Many people were crying in the service as they learned the news.”
He said Luke had just received his first Communion within the past year or so.
“He was always very enthusiastic and excited,” Kania said of Luke, recalling that the boy was sometimes so eager and in such a rush to speak that he could be difficult to understand.
“He was full of questions about God and the world. Sometimes he would ask me questions at the end of services, when everyone was trying to say goodbye. Sometimes he would hold everyone up,” Kania recalled with amusement.
“Now, all his questions will be answered. I’m sure he knows a lot more about God and heaven than I do now.”
Paul Voigt works for the Wisconsin State Patrol. His wife, Laurie, also works for the state in the Department of Corrections.
Tom Voigt, Paul’s brother who lives in Pierz, said he trusts everyone will pull together to make it through this difficult time.
“They’re a real good family. Everyone is real close to one another,” he said.
But Tom Voigt said the loss of his young nephew stings everyone.
“Luke was a very bright young man. He could read just about anything you put in front of him, and he always caught on quick. He was a real good kid,” he said.
Daniel Thralow of Duluth was watching from near Skyline Parkway above downtown as the storm intensified shortly before 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
“It kind of reminded me of the day of the waterspout (Aug. 9),” he said. “I didn’t want to miss that opportunity again, so I started the camera.”
A time-lapse video Thralow made from his photos shows the storm strengthening and lowering over the end of Park Point as bright bolts of lightning cut across the sky and down toward the lake.
Time-lapse video of storm by Daniel Thralow, from about 5:10 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. Saturday:
“It was amazing how far diagonally it stretched,” he said of the lightning. “You expect it to go straight down, and not meander so far.”
Sunday’s tragic accident underscores the importance of closely monitoring the weather when on Lake Superior, said Dave Phillips, St. Louis County Undersheriff. But he noted: “Looking at the radar, you could see it was a really small but intense cell that came up pretty fast.”
Looking back on the events, Phillips found little fault.
“It sounded like they were trying to do all the right things. But this was one of those freak incidents,” he said.
“As a fellow boater, there’s no way I would second-guess their actions,” Phillips said. “But in general, this incident and others, such as the recent waterspout and the strong rip currents we’ve had out there off the point, show that a lot of things can happen here on the west end of Lake Superior.”
Candace Renalls and Andrew Krueger of the News Tribune staff contributed to this report.