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Mike Creger, Forum Communications, Published June 23 2012

Boy sucked into culvert in 1972

DULUTH, Minn. – Steve Chapman tried, but his friend just couldn’t hold on. John Schroepfer was sucked into the culvert drain.

“Letting go of his hand was a pretty scary thing,” Schroepfer said Friday. He was sure it was the end for him. “I tried as hard as I could.”

But the water, powerful enough to suck the shoes and socks off his feet, won out.

Steve wept after his friend disappeared.

So it was a miracle that two blocks away, a battered 12-year-old from Duluth came out of the culvert alive.

It was one of the bright stories to come out of the terrible disaster in the Sept. 20, 1972, storm that swept the Northland. It was a storm that couldn’t help but be recalled last week by those living in the area at the time. The similarities were striking.

And the fact that in each storm a boy survived a terrifying tumble through a culvert brought the two events even closer together.

It’s an event Schroepfer will never forget. And it was stunning to him last week when he read about another boy surviving a scary ride down a culvert in a historic Northland rain storm.

Schroepfer said he might send a card to 8-year-old Kenny Markiewicz, the 2012 survivor.

Schroepfer recalled the cards and letters he received from around the world as his story hit the Associated Press wire.

“My mom had a scrapbook of them all,” he said.

Schroepfer now lives in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie.

He and Chapman were out riding their bikes after being let out early from Washington Junior High School as it became clear that another rain storm, one of many that season, would wreak havoc on the area. They happened upon a man behind the McDonald’s on East Central Entrance taking pictures of a large whirlpool of water.

They all were mesmerized by the debris collecting there, the News Tribune reported in its coverage of the storm on Sept. 21, 1972.

“He asked us to get the logs out and it would drain better,” Schroepfer said of the man who was described as a “villain” in the newspaper.

The boys went to work. Schroepfer slipped and fell into the eddy. Chapman grabbed his hand, the man grabbed Chapman’s.

“I got sucked in,” Schroepfer said. It wasn’t a straight shot. There was a 90-degree turn in the culvert and he smacked his head hard.

“I saw stars,” he said.

Recent lifeguard training probably saved Schroepfer. They had been practicing holding their breath, up to three minutes, he said.

So, like Kenny Markiewicz said last week, Schroepfer held his breath and hoped for the best.

“I swam, I fought, I held my breath and I was pulled and bounced and tumbled just like I was a ball bouncing along,” Schroepfer told a News Tribune reporter.

“I was just about ready to give when I thought I saw a light,” he said while recovering in his bed at home the next day. “So I fought the water harder.”

Schroepfer was tossed out of the culvert about two blocks away. It was not nearly as long a ride as Markiewicz’s estimated six blocks Wednesday near Proctor.

The injuries were similar. Schroepfer got some bruises, a cut on his head, and a sprained wrist.

Everyone said he was pretty lucky, Schroepfer said last week. His mom made sure to tell the News Tribune that her John was a good boy, that it wasn’t his fault. Kids at school thought it looked like he’d been in a bad fight.

Schroepfer said he remained good friends with Chapman through high school, that they had a bond since that frightening day. They haven’t seen each other for about 20 years, Schroepfer said. Chapman is in the military in South Carolina.

Schroepfer said he still loves the water and suffered no lingering harm from the incident.

So what about the man with the camera who everyone blamed for giving the two boys such a bad idea?

“He was a minister up in Duluth Heights,” Schroepfer said.

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Mike Creger writes for the Duluth News Tribune