ARLINGTON, S.D. — Fifty-mile-per-hour winds and sideways snow pierced first responders while they searched for bodies along the freezing lake.
About 75 people from at least 10 agencies spent hours in the bitter cold earlier this week seeking two brothers who went missing during an afternoon duck hunt near Arlington.
“Initially we were in rescue mode and were willing to risk a lot to save a lot,” said Brookings Fire Chief Darrell Hartmann, who assisted in the recovery efforts.
Late Monday night, a first responder located a capsized boat, and nearby was the body of 23-year-old Matthew Hill, of Volga, S.D. Authorities say he drowned.
His brother, Thomas Hill, 28, has yet to be located but officials presume he also died.
The incident, a non-firearm-related hunting death, is a rarity in South Dakota, according to Game, Fish & Parks officials. Prior to Monday, there have been nine documented non-firearm-related hunting deaths in the past decade in South Dakota, but seven of those were related to heart attacks while a hunter was in the field.
Other fatalities include a man who fell from his treestand in 2012, and a waterfowl hunter in 2014 who attempted to save his dog in freezing-cold temperatures. From 2006 to 2011, heart attacks were the only cause in documented cases.
Monday’s fatal hunting incident is a reminder that inherent dangers exist while enduring the outdoors, GF&P officials say, but state courses such as hunter safety and boater education make the occurrences rare.
“Some incidents can be certainly prevented, while other situations cannot be controlled; they’re simply unfortunate accidents,” said Andy Alban, GF&P law enforcement program administrator. “The weather can play a major factor with rapidly changing conditions at times. Everyone has a personal safety threshold, with some folks more conservative than others with their actions.”
On Monday night, a call to the Brookings Fire Department reported the missing brothers, who had been hunting at Brush Lake, near the intersection of U.S. Highways 81 and 14, about 15 miles west of Brookings.
Six agencies and other volunteers assisted in the search Monday evening, Chief Hartmann said, from 6:30 to 11 p.m.
“It was too hazardous to put another boat or watercraft on the water, and it was dark,” Hartmann said. “We grouped people up and gave them areas to search around the shore.”
The air temperature was in the single digits and wind gusts were up to 50 mph.
“It became very clear with the conditions and being in the water that it was probably unlikely we would find the other brother alive,” Hartmann added.
After halting the search that night, additional first responders arrived at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Officials from 10 agencies searched for Thomas Hill, while the National Weather Service and Geographic Information System, South Dakota, assisted.
Accounting for all of the first responders prior to the search was key. Then, groups were assigned to designated areas of the lake.
The chief said everything around the lake was searched three times or more. Rescue efforts persisted until 4 p.m. Tuesday.
“It was cold, windy, and we were pulling responders back every hour to let them warm up,” Hartmann said.
While exact details of the incident will likely never be known, wind was a factor in the boat’s capsizing, Hartmann said.
Brookings County Emergency Manager Bob Hill said water temperature was 39 degrees Tuesday, and search efforts were especially difficult due to snow, high winds and ice unsafe for foot travel.
He said a number of methods could be used later in attempts to locate the remaining body, including specialized dogs, sonar or an underwater remote operated vehicle from Codington County Search and Rescue.
Hartmann said recovery efforts will continue.
“We don’t want to risk a life to save a life,” he said. “That’s the viewpoint that we have to look at. We are willing to do everything in our power to assist the family to retrieve the body, but we can’t risk somebody’s safety.”
Matthew and Thomas Hill were both HuntSAFE (Safety and Firearms Education) certified.
The goal of the course is to teach young hunters safe handling of firearms and developing safe, legal and responsible hunters.
Jason Kool is GF&P’s division staff specialist who leads the state’s education for the Wildlife Division, including hunter education.
He said South Dakota’s hunter education class uses standards from the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA).
The IHEA standards, used in 50 states, are so states have reciprocity for hunting and the same material is taught, Kool said. One of the major topics includes responsible hunting, which includes what to do in case of emergency.
“Depending on where you live, you kind of get a course more tailored to your location,” Kool said. “For example, if you live in the Black Hills, you’ll get a course on outdoor survival. The eastern part of the state focuses on pheasant and duck hunting safety.”
Alban, who oversees the state’s conservation officers, said it’s “incumbent upon our agency to keep safety at the forefront of our information/education endeavors.”
He explained GF&P officers are trained to investigate hunting- and boating-related incidents, with some who’ve received advanced training in specialized areas.
While Alban wouldn’t comment on whether the state is doing enough to educate hunters on the potential dangers of the outdoors, he explained accidents can happen to even the most prepared individuals.
“Even individuals who strictly follow safety guidelines aren’t totally immune from danger,” he said. “Seat belts, air bags, life jackets, tree stand safety harnesses, gun safeties, etc. all improve safety but don’t necessarily 100 percent prevent injury or death.”