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Kevin Behr, Winona (Minn.) Daily News, Published June 23 2009

Drowned Hmong boy not lost on sheriff

DRESBACH, Minn. – Winona County Sheriff Dave Brand can’t swim.

He’s uncomfortable on the water. But he is more uncomfortable knowing somewhere near Lock and Dam 7 the remains of a 10-year-old boy wait to be found.

Two uncomfortable feelings for two years end with the same result – one more search.

On a cold, foggy day last October, Brand mobilized about 30 volunteers in a last-ditch attempt to find Joshua Xiong, the 10-year-old boy who had drowned with his family 19 months earlier when their fishing boat was sucked into the Mississippi River at Lock and Dam 7.

Rescuers had found the bodies of his stepfather, Cha Kong Yang; his pregnant mother, See Her; and his sister, Amanda Xiong, in the days after the drownings. But nearly two years later, Joshua continues to elude them, perhaps, as some in the Hmong culture suspect, because the boy’s spirit is destined to forever haunt the waters where he died.

Brand doesn’t know much about Hmong spirits. But if finding the body will ease the pain of Joshua’s relatives, then that is the sheriff’s mission. And maybe, Brand figures, if he can find the body, he’ll stop seeing Joshua’s face when he lies in bed at night. He’ll stop seeing Joshua’s face each time he passes the dam. Maybe Joshua will leave him be.

As rescue crews in October puttered out into the fog, Brand stayed ashore, watching. Reserve officers from the Winona and Goodview police departments, the Winona County Search Operations and Rescue squad and the County Emergency Response Team trudged through damp, waist-high grass, scrambled over felled trees and poked through underbrush. A cadaver dog from Rochester sniffed the sand, bushes and trees of Minnesota Island for hours.

The chances of finding some sign of Joshua after so long were “as good as anything else,” said Jeff Peterson, a CERT member volunteering that day. Brand pegged it at a disheartening 2 percent.

The volunteers combed the shores and islands of the Mississippi up to 3 miles downstream of the dam.

They went home tired, muddy and empty-handed.

“I don’t have any more areas where we can search,” Brand said, defeated. “We’ve covered everything.”

Joshua’s surviving family calls Brand the Big Teddy Bear.

The sheriff was their rock, a bridge between the Hmong culture that chanted and prayed along the banks and the volunteers who combed the waters.

Other volunteers also did their best to assuage the surviving family. They brought food from McDonald’s, Kwik Trip and Corky’s, and a local pizza and ice cream joint to feed the Hmong and up to 150 people on scene everyday. A woman who lived nearby baked more than a half-dozen homemade pies.

The volunteers gave blankets to the Hmong family to keep them warm as they burned incense and prayed. Overwhelmed by the volunteers’ generosity, the large Hmong group of relatives and friends offered to pay for the blankets. Fire Chief Gary Brauer of Campbell, Wis., was humbled by their humility.

“No, we’re giving these to you,” he said.

The Hmong relatives were shocked that so many people would give up so much of themselves to help them.

Twenty relatives attended an awards banquet in February 2008, when several officers and firefighters received valor awards for their work during the August 2007 floods.

Brand was given a plaque for his work in Dresbach. The relatives brought traditional Hmong dishes to share.

“It shows everybody that we’re no different. We’re all the same,” said Ka Thao, who became the family’s representative after the drownings. “(The rescuers) are not my people, but I consider them family because they were there to help.”

La Crescent Fire Chief Bernie Buehler accepted their thanks but brushed off the community’s response as nothing special.

“We’re all here to help each other,” he said. “We care.”

As the days passed and Joshua remained missing, the searchers began to give up hope of finding the body. Eventually, they stopped looking.

Except for Brand.

He deployed the dive and rescue boat at least once a week that entire summer, sometimes as often as every other day, to troll the waterways up to 9 miles downstream.

“The team never gives up,” former Dive and Rescue Team leader Russ Marsolek said.

The summer faded to fall, and in October, a duck hunter flipped his airboat near Dakota, Minn., and drowned. His body was quickly recovered, but even during that rescue, the dive team kept an extra eye open for Joshua. Just in case.

The search literally went ice cold as winter came. Ice stilled the river and snow buried anything that may have been on the shore.

Any other searches would have to wait until the spring thaw. When the snow melted, Brand scaled back the search, sending out the team only a few times.

No one involved – not the family, nor the searchers – will admit to completely giving up hope, but all have come to a solid consensus:

“Joshua is not coming back,” said Thai Vue, the director of the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association in La Crosse, Wis. “He’s lost in the river.”

The sheriff tried “everything humanly possible” to bring closure to the family, Marsolek said.

But – through no fault of his own – he failed.

“Finding the three, we feel very good about that,” Buehler said. “And the other one, I guess you’d have to say that we’re convinced that his tomb is in the river.”

Like Cha Kong and Joshua, Ka Thao and her husband, Xiong Yang, used to fish Lock and Dam 7. But they haven’t been back since the drownings. Yang said he still drives his boat upriver from La Crosse toward Dresbach looking for any signs of Joshua on the shorelines. He has never made it all the way up to the dam.

On April 4, nearly two years after the drownings, Thao and Brand decided to meet for one last search. Brand was determined to be in the search boat that day, despite his unease on the water.

Thao greeted Brand with a hug, calling him by the affectionate nickname, Big Teddy Bear.

Dive Team leader Brian Buerck angled the boat toward the dam, fighting a strong current, weaving through a dozen fishing boats.

Cha Kong’s sister recently became a shaman and had spoken with the spirit world. She had a revelation that piqued the interest of everyone on board.

She predicted the high waters of a winter thaw would wash Joshua’s bones ashore, Yang said. Someone would stumble upon them within the next year or two.

“Maybe we could look again in the summer and look at the shorelines,” Yang suggested.

Brand looked into his eyes.

“Yes,” he said, perhaps once the water goes down.

“We could go again.”