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September 01, 2011 8:50 am

Storm claims two lives on Big Horn Lake

Written by Don Amend

Two children died Monday night when their family was hit by a sudden storm while kayaking on Big Horn Lake.

Johnny Harder, 8, and his brother Joseph, 4, died when high winds and heavy waves struck the family of John and Janice Harder  Monday evening. Four other children, Katie, 11, Anne, 9, Cecilia, 6, and Mary, 3, survived, as did their parents. Mary and Cecilia were transported to Billings and Janice was hospitalized in Lovell. John, Katie and Anne were all treated and released.

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.

12 comments

  • Comment Link September 01, 2011 1:18 pm posted by Marshall Haley

    God bless the Harder family, and I pray they are comforted by knowledge that Mother Mary and Jesus are taking good care of Johnny and Joseph for them.
    Thank God my old Marine Corps buddy Denis O'Brien was passing by. His Force Recon training served him and the Harders well, and I'm sure he wishes he could have done more. (But I can't find fault with a 63-year-old diving into such waters to help!)

  • Comment Link September 01, 2011 3:07 pm posted by Jim Prang

    To Cousin John (& Janice),
    May God give you the strength and peace to mend, and may you feel the thoughts and prayers of those who know & love you...today & always.

    Love, Jim & Courtney Prang & kids

  • Comment Link September 01, 2011 4:40 pm posted by Greg Lawrence Family, Steve Lawrence Family, Erica Schneider and Family

    To Cousin John and Family
    We are praying for you and your family.

  • Comment Link September 01, 2011 7:29 pm posted by Catherine B.

    The Harder family has prayers coming from Austin, TX tonight from several families.

  • Comment Link September 01, 2011 7:33 pm posted by Anonymous

    Many prayers sent your way from Austin, Texas. We will join in your rosary remotely.

  • Comment Link September 01, 2011 8:11 pm posted by The Clark and Anne-Marie Cummings Familly

    Dear John, Janice, and Children,
    Anne-Marie, our children, and I said a rosary for you tonight. We just found out. Joseph Cummings cried, knowing that he will not see your boys in this world again. Joseph almost lost his life to appendicitis last year. Your boys were there, loving Joe up. Anne, the kids and I are crying in our hearts and eyes for you all. We send to you now, our tears, our prayers, and our love. +

  • Comment Link September 02, 2011 1:32 am posted by Bonnie Damey

    The Damey family and many, many other friends in Seattle are praying for all of you. We are so sorry for your loss and heartache.
    God Bless!

  • Comment Link September 02, 2011 7:07 am posted by Paula OKeefe

    prayers from Virginia for consolation after the loss of your two beautiful boys.

  • Comment Link September 02, 2011 7:41 am posted by MRS J GRACE

    My friend Marshall Haley forwarded this link for me to read, he is a friend of Denis O'Brien. I will include your sons in my Rosaries this week for their blessing and safe passage into the higher realms.

  • Comment Link September 03, 2011 2:03 pm posted by Roger Thibodeau

    Friends of Diana Cummings here in Seattle are heartbroken for your terrible loss. We are praying and offering our sacrafices for your family during this awful time. What a beautiful family you have. God be with you!

  • Comment Link September 03, 2011 9:38 pm posted by Jan England

    +
    Dear Harder Family,

    You are all in my prayers and in my heart. Many, many people are praying for you. May God bless you with deep consolation and may you rest in His love for you all. (I attend St. Stephens Church in Sacramento where some of your family attend. Our entire community has been praying for you since we found out and we will continue.)

    In Christ's Love,

    Jan England

  • Comment Link September 07, 2011 7:28 pm posted by Katherine Ricciardi

    Dearest Harder Family,

    You are in our hearts and prayers as you adjust through life with two saints in Heaven. Our dear friend asked me to pray the night of the accident, and now, the prayers of our family continue on for each one of you.

    With hugs from the Windy City, Chicago, IL,

    Ricciardi Family

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