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Erik Burgess, Published June 20 2013

VIDEO: Driver of pickup swept off highway near Gwinner recovered, identified

GWINNER, N.D. – With torrential rain pouring outside, Jim Materi left work from the partially flooded Bobcat plant here just after 7 a.m. Thursday and started the slow drive home to Lisbon.

He called his brother Francis Materi on the drive and told him he was glad he was in his pickup truck, not his car, because water in the ditches along North Dakota Highway 32 just north of here was starting to rise and splash onto the road.

The area received 7 or more inches of rain overnight Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service. By Thursday morning, water was flooding basements in Gwinner and rushing over Highway 32, impeding Jim Materi’s path home.

With officials slowly waving cars through, Jim pressed on, and Francis hung up the phone to tend to some household chores. When Francis called back moments later, Jim’s phone went straight to voicemail.

By then, Francis guessed, his brother was already in the water.

Moments after hanging up, raging rainwater swept Jim’s truck off the highway and into Dead Colt Creek, a normally mild-mannered creek that had surged to the size of a small river with the overnight rain.

Sheriff’s officials told Francis hours later that, while divers were still trying to recover the vehicle from the creek, his brother couldn’t get out of the truck and had died. James John Materi was 48.

“(Jim was) just the nicest guy, kindest soul,” Francis said when reached by phone in his Wishek home Thursday afternoon. “He would give you the shirt off his back, literally. Just a great brother and a great person.”

Jim was single and had no children, and had been working at Bobcat for about three years, his brother said. Francis, 49, said Jim was a “real good driver,” and that it was likely the conditions that caused the accident.

“I certainly was the last person to speak to him,” Francis said. “And given the outcome, I’m very glad that he called me this morning and that I was able to talk to him before this happened.”

Water ‘had gushed up’

About 8 to 12 inches of water covered the roadway when Jim’s truck was washed into the creek around 7:45 a.m. Thursday, the North Dakota Highway Patrol reported.

Traffic was being flagged through in a single lane along that stretch, but the road was closed down after Materi’s truck went into the creek, said Ransom County Sheriff Darren Benneweis.

“It had gushed up,” said Mary Jansen, who lives across the road from where Materi entered the water.

Jansen said it looked like Materi was almost through the flooded section when all of a sudden he was in the ditch.

“Then he disappeared,” Jansen said, adding that she felt “really helpless” watching it all unfold. She said you normally cannot see the creek from her home and that the last time it was this high was in 1997.

Sargent County Sheriff Travis Paeper said he was responding to another call involving a different driver washed off another nearby road – that driver escaped unharmed – when he was notified that Materi’s truck went into the creek.

Crews from the Gwinner Fire Department were also close when Materi called 911 at 7:45 from his truck, Paeper said.

“He was on the phone for a while,” Paeper said. “He wasn’t able to get out of the car, and from the information we had, he wasn’t able to swim. So he stayed in the car.”

The fire crews that responded were able to run alongside the banks with the truck in sight, but then it sank into the swollen creek. The Highway Patrol reported that after the pickup left the road it was on top of the water for about 15 minutes before sinking.

It took crews from around the region hours to retrieve the vehicle from the creek.

A diver eventually secured a line to Materi’s truck and, using a backhoe and a tractor, the truck was pulled from the creek about 1:45 p.m.

The truck, with Materi still inside, had settled at the creek’s floor about 10 feet below the surface, Benneweis said.

First responders on the scene were not suited for diving and had to wait until water rescue teams from Wahpeton and Fargo arrived, likely more than an hour after the initial call, Benneweis said. By then, the team had switched from rescue to recovery mode.

“We were going to do everything we could in rescue mode,” Paeper said. “And once those efforts are exhausted, we kind of shift gears to recovery mode. And again, we gotta take into consideration all the elements that we’re dealing with and the safety of everybody here on scene. We don’t want this to turn into multiple casualties.”

‘It was Jim’s time’

Francis said his parents both died within months of each other – his mother in late 2003, his father in 2004 – which has strengthened his spirituality and his ability, so far, to handle the “unexpected” death of his brother.

“Maybe it just hasn’t hit me yet, but I feel remarkably calm,” Francis said. “I just think some things are meant to be. I think our lives are directed and are meant to end the way they’re supposed to end, and it was Jim’s time.”

Jeff White, a media relations coordinator for Bobcat, said employees were given the option to go home for the day or stay and help clean up.

But Francis disputed that claim in an email sent to The Forum late Thursday afternoon. Based on the phone call he had with his brother prior to the accident, Francis said it sounded like Bobcat made his brother leave.

“He is the type of person who would certainly have stayed to help with cleanup. I don’t think he was given that option,” Francis wrote. “Per our conversation, he was told his group or line should go home. I don’t think he would’ve chanced the conditions, otherwise.”

Francis said he has another brother and a sister who live in Bismarck, where their parents are buried, and that Jim will likely be buried there as well.

“He was a reflection of my parents,” Francis said, his voice beginning to tremble. “They raised him well and taught him to respect others and just to be kind. He lived the way they would’ve wanted him to.”

Sewage in basements

The heavy rainfall in Gwinner swamped streets and flooded some buildings, including the Bobcat plant.

Brian Anderson, director of human resources for Bobcat, said a portion of the factory was covered in 2 to 3 inches of water.

“It’s enough where it reduced us to limited production and it’s quite a bit to clean up, but it’s mainly just getting the water cleaned up,” Anderson said.

He said the factory would hopefully be up and running by late Thursday.

Kevin Adam, owner of ServiceMaster of nearby Oakes, said they received at least 15 calls for cleaning services Thursday from residents with soaked basements.

Sewage backup occurred in about half of the homes Adam visited Thursday.

Amanda Orn, a nursing student at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton who works in Lisbon, said her basement got about 5 inches of water, but no sewage.

Adam said flooding from rainstorms like this happens in the area probably every five or six years.

The rain also washed out and closed a small section of Highway 13 about 8 miles west of Gwinner after water rushed through a culvert, Paeper said. Highway 13 was reopened by Thursday evening.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518