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Steve Wagner and Anne Williams, Forum Communications Co., Published April 09 2012

Family 'hopeful, but not optimistic' for Minnesota boy’s recovery after losing his brothers in sailboat tragedy

LEONARD, Minn. – An 8-year-old boy who fell into a frigid lake near here remains in critical condition, and the family is “hopeful, but not optimistic” about the long-term prognosis.

Sara Staley, the aunt of 8-year-old Isaiah Risland, said it’s too early to tell what Isaiah’s outcome would be as doctors attempt to help the boy who stopped breathing due to hypothermia last Friday.

“While the nurse was moving him today (Monday), it seemed as though he was responding. He shook his head no to a couple of questions and was moving his mouth and tongue,” Staley wrote in the online journal on the CaringBridge.org website. “We told him he needed to sleep in order to get better. This may have just been his body’s reflexes, but it gives hope to this auntie.”

The boy remains in critical condition at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis after the 10-foot sailboat he was in capsized Friday afternoon.

His two brothers, 6-year-old Zech and 2-year-old Jacob, died after spending about an hour in the 40-degree waters of Clearwater Lake, which stretches into both Clearwater and Beltrami counties.

Their father, Dan Risland of Leonard, told authorities the boat capsized, and he was unable to get the boys to shore due to the wind and strong current. Risland then left the boys, who all wore life jackets, to summon help.

In the journal entry, Staley wrote that Dan Risland told family members the waves and wind caused water to rush into the boat, resulting in the boat sinking. He had the children form a human chain in the water, from smallest to largest, and each child held on to another’s ankles.

Risland tried to pull them to shore, but could not make any headway, Staley wrote.

The father swam to shore and flagged down someone to call 911, and first responders from at least eight agencies scrambled to the lake, about eight miles north of Leonard and nearly 30 miles northwest of Bemidji, to rescue the boys.

Family members are asking for prayers for Isaiah Risland, who was not breathing and had no pulse when he was pulled from the lake.

“It’s a miracle” the boy has survived, Clearwater County Sheriff Mike Erickson said Monday.

After an ambulance took Isaiah to Sanford Bemidji Medical Center, he was airlifted Friday to Children’s Hospital.

The hospital hasn’t released the boy’s condition, but Erickson said Isaiah’s condition hadn’t changed since the Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office last reported he was in critical condition.

“Dan’s a good father,” Erickson said. “From everything I can tell, he did everything he could.”

In a journal entry written Sunday by Tia Wallin, doctors planned to begin the process on Monday of bringing Isaiah’s body temperature back to its normal temperature, but added this can be a slow process.

Wallin wrote that Isaiah was stable and asked people “to pray for Isaiah as he continues to heal and as we still don’t know the extent of his injuries.”

Allen Ralston, elementary school principal and superintendent of Clearbrook-Gonvick School District, which Zech and Isaiah Risland attended, said he was contacting members of the school’s crisis response team on Monday. The team consists of counselors, pastoral counsel and law enforcement officials, which he said will work with students and staff when they return to school today.

Clearbrook-Gonvick School District operates on a four-day school week, which runs Tuesdays through Fridays.

“Our teaching staff in the elementary school will be very aware of kids being sensitive about what happened,” Ralston said. “We lost a first-grader and have a second-grader in the hospital. It’s going to be very noticeable when you’re in a very small school district.”

Staff is expected to meet this morning, when they will likely discuss ways to handle questions from students, Ralston said.

“We’ll remind people that it’s OK to have emotions and that this is a tough time for all of us,” he said. “When you’re a small school district, you know your kids. Cooks, bus drivers, paraprofessionals and others know every kid’s name and every face. It impacts us in a lot of ways that may not be true in a larger school district.”

Sheriff Erickson also said counseling was being offered to first responders from Clearwater County.

Gadget Soule, Risland’s sister-in-law, told the Star Tribune she watched the boys leave to go sailing, and they were thrilled to take their new sailboat out for the first time.

“They were all excited to go out and sail with Daddy,” she said. “They lived for him, and he lived for them.”

The Star Tribune reported Risland was an avid outdoorsman and had bought the sailboat just last week.

Risland’s sister, Rosie Miles, said the brothers were rambunctious young boys, who couldn’t sit still unless they were watching “Veggie Tales” or playing outside with their dad. She said the family is devastated.

“It was Easter weekend; he wanted to take his kids out on his new boat,” Miles said. “He told me, ‘I love my boys.’”

A fund has been set up to help the family. Donations can be sent to the Dan Risland fund, Country Faith Church, P.O. Box 41, Clearbrook, MN 56634.


Steve Wagner is the editor and Anne Williams is a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer.


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