'An indescribable tragedy': Family remembers Lake Superior drowning victims; authorities recount harrowing search
The two people who drowned in Lake Superior offshore from Park Point in Duluth on Thursday were remembered Friday as a "vivacious" girl and her devoted father.
Lillian Elizabeth Fuglie, 10, of Hudson, Wis., and her 38-year-old father, Ryan Paul Fuglie of Osceola, Wis., were unable to be resuscitated after being pulled from the lake after a lengthy search in challenging conditions on Thursday evening; they had been reported missing by Lillian's 12-year-old sister. The St. Louis County Sheriff's Office publicly identified the victims on Friday.
"Lillian was outgoing with a huge heart," her mother, Maggie Wacker-Fritze, told KSTP-TV — a girl who loved to sing, make people laugh and take selfies.
Wacker-Fritze told KSTP-TV that Lillian, her 12-year-old sister and their father were in the Duluth area for a camping trip ahead of the start of school.
Shannon Smith, who was married to Ryan Fuglie for three years through September 2015, told the News Tribune that Lillian was the kind of girl who didn't care what people thought of her and was the "life of the party. She was her own person."
Smith said that Ryan Fuglie would do anything for his girls.
"If Lillian was in trouble, he would have gone in no matter what. His girls were his life," she said Friday.
"The whole family are avid swimmers," Smith said. "They loved being in Duluth. That was their favorite spot. They loved to go up there and camp and canoe and play on the rocks. They loved the beach. But why they were out there yesterday, I don't know."
While Thursday was not a pleasant day on shore, with rain and a strong east wind, the wind pushed Lake Superior’s warm surface water toward Duluth and the Park Point beach. That same wind also led to dangerous rip currents.
Authorities said Friday that it remained unclear exactly how the incident unfolded in the moments before the 911 call was placed.
Dave Phillips, St. Louis County undersheriff, said the 12-year-old daughter and sister of the victims who reported them missing said she last saw them swimming in the lake. She ran to the nearest other people on the beach for help; those people never saw the victims, Phillips said.
"So the only witness we have of them in the water is the 12-year-old," Phillips told the News Tribune. "So that's all we know at this point. ... It's just an indescribable tragedy."
The Duluth firefighter who swallowed a large amount of lake water when the fire department's rescue boat flipped in a large wave during Thursday's search was fine and recovering on Friday, Assistant Fire Chief Chris Martinson said.
A difficult rescue mission
In addition to the fire department and sheriff's office, the U.S. Coast Guard, Duluth Police Department, Gold Cross Ambulance and the St. Louis County Rescue Squad took part in the search effort Thursday along the beach near the Park Point Beach House.
Rick Slatten, captain of the rescue squad, described Friday how emergency responders flew into action when the call came in at 4:20 p.m. Thursday. He said that when the call went out, "we had individuals in the rescue squad coming from all points on the compass."
The rescue squad has a 28-foot boat stationed at Fraser Shipyards, a 25-foot boat at Lakehead Boat Basin, and still more watercraft at Pike Lake. They joined a Coast Guard vessel and the fire department's inflatable boat.
"Looking tactically at the scene, our big boats were offshore with sonar, and we had the little boats inside the surfline that were visually scanning the waves and the rare case where we got a look at the bottom," Slatten said. "But what really carried the day was observers on shore. We had people situated up on the dunes, just scanning the water."
Amid the 6- to 7-foot waves, the search proved a challenge, and the fire department's boat capsized during the effort. But Slatten said he was nothing short of impressed by the firefighters' skill in navigating the surf.
"I can't say enough good about Duluth fire, the team that was in that Zodiac. ... I hope everybody recognizes the 90 minutes that boat was upright and not the five minutes that it wasn't, because ... that was some of the best seamanship that I've ever seen," he said.
The two swimmers were caught in a powerful rip current that Slatten said was visible from the boats.
"One thing that really impressed me was how visual the rip current was," he said. "... What comes in must go out. The waves were being pushed against the shore, and that water has to go somewhere. So it creates these corridors in between the surfline where this water is flowing back out into the lake. And you could visually see that yesterday.
"You'd see the breakers coming in, and then there would be a gap of relatively calm water, and then the breakers would start again. It was perpendicular to the shore, and that was the rip. That's the water from the waves going back out. You don't often see that. There's got to be some pretty angry water to see that."
Both of the victims were first sighted from shore, Slatten said — they were about 60 to 80 yards from shore when first spotted, he said. Lillian was brought to shore at about 5:20 p.m.; her father was brought to shore at about 6 p.m.
Slatten said rescue squad members had an opportunity to reflect further on the incident later Thursday night.
"It turns out that our weekly maintenance and training meeting was last night at Pike Lake. So we got everybody together and talked about it. We discussed what everybody felt and what went well and what didn't go so well," he said.
Slatten said arrangements are being made for a session with the Arrowhead Critical Incident Stress Management Team.
"The team gets together and notifies all of the players who were involved in the incident, and we arrange a meeting to sit down and talk about it. ...
"Any time a human is exposed to more sensory input than they can process — sight, sound, smell, everything — when something happens that challenges our beliefs about what's right in the universe. ... You know our brains are sponges. They hang onto it. They just stash it away, and they'll replay it later. So the secret is to play that tape in a safe environment. That's what the (debriefing) is all about. The debriefing or defusing gets everybody in one place, and everybody pushes their play button, and then we can see what everybody experienced and process all that data that has been stored. ...
"It has been a long week," Slatten said, noting the lengthy search for missing Duluth couple Ron and Mary Tarnowski, among other incidents. "... These things are just like a kick in the gut. You try so hard to be successful, but it just wasn't in the cards."
John Myers and Andrew Krueger of the News Tribune staff contributed to this report.