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Tragedy strikes Mennonite Community

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Tragedy struck Polk County last week when an overturned boat on the Conasauga Creek in the Mennonite Community in Delano led to the apparent deaths of a father and two children.

Tragedy struck Polk County last week when an overturned boat on the Conasauga Creek in the Mennonite Community in Delano led to the apparent deaths of a father and two children. A search for them is still continuing. Three others in the boat, also children, we able to get to safety. The creek was swollen out of its banks after multiple days of heavy rain was dumped on the area.

According to West Polk County Fire Chief Steve Lofty, the initial call for the overturned boat came in at about 3:45 last Wednesday. When they arrived on scene, he said, Bridget Lofgren and other State Parks officers were on sight. A Swiftwater Rescue Team from Bradley County was called in and inflatable kayaks and rafts were deployed in the swollen creek.

“The creek was spread anywhere from 50-1500 feet across at various places,” Lofty said.

Rescuers had boats in the water until nightfall, and a ground search was begun.  Once the search was called off that evening, Lofty said, the operation went from rescue to “recovery mode.”

Lofty said WPFR shared command with Bradley County and Tri-State Mutual Aid provided 95% of resources involved. He said an agency from Hardeman County came in with a site scan sonar system to help with the search, which included both water and land. East Polk Fire and rescue also joined the effort, and will be taking over command with Bradley County on Wednesday.

Lofty said resources from hiking groups, whitewater companies and kayakers were also utilized. He said Ed Ditto, an avid local kayaker and grant writer for the Rescue Squad had been in the water assisting the search. Lofty said local whitewater outfitters donated helmets and lifejackets to the cause, as well.

According to Lofty, those in the water utilized a highline to help guide them. He said the line went across the swollen creek and kayakers used the line to take them left and right across the banks as they worked their way downstream.

There has been no sign of the missing family. There has been no contact and no personal items have been found, Lofty said.

McMinn County Airport put a plane in the air on day two of the search, a helicopter from Hamilton County flew over on day 3, and a Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter did a fly-over on Monday. None of the aircraft were able to spot anything to aid in the search.

“We’re covering a huge area just to make sure,” Lofty said.

School busses were donated by the school system to help transport searchers to various areas in order to get as many people to as many different areas along the creek as possible. Lofty expressed gratitude for having the transportation that helped get people on the ground and working.

On Monday, Wright Brothers Construction came to the site with heavy equipment to help move brush and clear a log jam and allow rescuers cover more territory. Lofty said members of the Mennonite Community also worked to help clear areas for the rescue.

“The Mennonites have been clearing things out and have participated in every element they could, including bringing food and drinks to the rescue teams,” Lofty said, adding they even brought cinnamon rolls to the workers.

Lofty said commanders of the search and rescue teams have made every effort to ensure the community is able to keep their privacy. Lofty said they instructed media and others not to photograph members of the Mennonite Community, as it is against their beliefs. He said they also blocked off the area near their church in order for a funeral to be held for the three whose remains have not yet been found.

According to Lofty, everything they have needed has been provided to them during the search.

“It is the biggest operation we have undergone in 20 years,” he said. Lofty said they would continue searching every day from about 9-6 until the water clears and all possibilities have been exhausted. He praised the Delano and Friendship Baptist Churches as well as the Red Cross for providing rehab and keeping 50-75 workers fed each day.

Lofty said adjoining counties had gone all out to make sure there were plenty of people to help in the search and that the crews had all the equipment they needed. He said the new repeater system put in place had been a godsend for keeping all the workers in communication with one another.

According Lofty, the operation has shown a tremendous amount of willingness for local and surrounding rescue teams to work together in a crisis situation.

“We have come a long way in this county,” Lofty said, praising all those who came out without hesitation to help in the effort. He said work will continue until waters recede and all possibilities have been exhausted.

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