According to Dani Higgins of Frannie, a friend of the Harder family, Cecilia was in critical condition Tuesday, but had made “a miraculous turnaround” and might be released as early as Wednesday. Mary was released Tuesday night and Janice was expected to be released Wednesday.
According to Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn, the Harders and their six children were kayaking in a cove on the east side of the lake about a mile north of the Kane boat ramp Monday evening. The water was quiet and weather appeared favorable, so they left the cove to paddle to a nearby island. The storm blew up as they were heading back to the shore, causing heavy waves and scattering the kayaks.
John Harder was able to assist the two older girls in reaching the shore, with the help of a bystander, Denis O’Brien of Langley, British Columbia, who swam out to help one of the girls, who was still in her kayak. Because it was impossible to go back on the water, Harder went to the nearby Bentonite Performance Minerals plant, where he works, to seek help. A 911 call went out at 7:52 p.m. and several employees of the plant went to the scene to help.
In approximately 25 minutes, Big Horn County Search and Rescue personnel had boats on the water, but waves Blackburn called “massive” were too much for lighter boats, and a call went out for heavier craft. Private owners including Brad Haskell, Ken Grant and Bruce Jolley, all of Lovell, brought their boats into the effort as did Search and Rescue members Barry Wilske and Joe Prosser. A National Park Service maintenance crew also provided a boat manned by Mike Durtsche.
The first victim was found in the water shortly before 11 p.m. and was transported to North Big Horn Hospital in Lovell. Janice was located in the water with the two younger girls clinging to her and also transported to Lovell. The final victim wasn’t found until just after midnight, also still in the water.
CPR was performed on all four of the children found during the search, but two boys were pronounced dead at the hospital.
Blackburn said the rescue operation was dangerous for all involved. John Harder made a “herculean” effort to bring two of the girls near the shore and O’Brien “put himself in real danger” by swimming out to help one of the girls. Those on the boats battled “treacherous” waves and darkness as they searched for the other victims.
“There were some real heroes out there,” Blackburn said.
The Lovell Fire Department provided land support during the rescue efforts, Blackburn said, and Powell emergency medical personnel provided backup while Lovell ambulances were on the accident scene. The last boat did not leave the water until 1:30 a.m.
“It was a great example of a community effort,” Blackburn said.
O’Brien said he watched much of the rescue effort from Blackburn’s truck, and he said “the sheriff and his people were brilliant, absolutely brilliant.”
“When I left the lake that night, only one child in addition to the girl (he had helped) had been found, and it looked very grim,” O’Brien said. “I was expecting a worse outcome. Obviously, the sheriff’s people made the difference.”
O’Brien also said the girl he helped was “absolutely calm” when he reached her. He has experienced similar winds while kayaking, and is “just in awe of her for keeping that boat upright for as long as she did.”
Higgins also commented on the way the older girls handled the situation in the aftermath of the accident.
“I was amazed at their composure,” Higgins said.
Blackburn said he feels the Harders took proper precautions and made reasonable decisions prior to the storm. All eight were wearing proper flotation gear, and they had been kayaking on the lake at other times during the summer.
“Old Mother Nature just wasn’t very kind to them,” he said.
The Harder family are members of St. Barbara’s Catholic parish in Powell and attend church at St. Joseph’s Catholic in Lovell as well. St. Barbara’s has established a benefit fund in their name at First Bank of Wyoming.
Funeral Mass for Johnny and Joseph Harder will be held Saturday, Sept. 3, at 10 a.m. at St. Barbara’s Church. Rosary will be recited at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2, also at St. Barbara’s.