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Worthington farmer rescues pair lost in Friday's blizzard

“I heard their friend on speaker phone saying something to the effect, ‘I’m really, really cold and I don’t know how much farther I can walk — I can’t feel my feet.’”

Sanford Worthington Emergency Department
Rural Worthington farmer Joe Vander Kooi snapped this image after dropping off a young man and woman at the Sanford Worthington Medical Center ER during Friday's blizzard. He rescued the two individuals from a gravel road with his John Deere tractor after they became stuck and lost in the storm.
Submitted photo
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WORTHINGTON — A farmer from south of Worthington may not feel like he did much to rescue a pair of young adults lost on a gravel road along Lake Ocheda Friday afternoon, but considering the white-out conditions and -45 windchills, it’s quite possible he saved some lives.

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Joe Vander Kooi was working between cattle lots during Friday’s blizzard, and was on his way home to get a tractor when he came across a vehicle parked at Hawkinson Bridge on Nobles County 57.

He stopped, and when they didn’t attempt to move their vehicle, he got out to ask if they were OK.

“They had their hazards on and they were in my way,” Vander Kooi said. “I couldn’t get around them.”

He walked up to their vehicle to check on them, and they said they were fine, but looking for friends who were lost and stuck. A tracking program on their phone showed a map of where the friends were.

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“They wanted to go down 290th (Street),” Vander Kooi said of the east-west gravel road that follows the north side of Lake Ocheda’s west basin. Locals know it as the road that goes by Pfeil’s hill — and also as a road that is virtually impassable in snowstorms.

“I said it gets bad down that road,” Vander Kooi said, adding that it was difficult to hear their reply because of the 50-mile-per-hour winds roaring around them.

“They showed me a (phone app map), and it looked like they were south of where I live, but I had just left my house and I didn’t see them,” Vander Kooi added.

At that point, he told the young people to be safe and that it was “really, really nasty out here,” and left to clear a road.

About 20 minutes later, however, Vander Kooi made another pass through Hawkinson bridge and found the vehicle and its occupants still inside.

This time when he went to their car window, they said they were OK, but that their friends really needed help.

“I heard their friend on speaker phone saying something to the effect, ‘I’m really, really cold and I don’t know how much farther I can walk — I can’t feel my feet,’” Vander Kooi shared.

At that point, he realized how dire the situation was.

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Vander Kooi provided his cell phone number so the individual walking could send the locator map directly to him.

“I said ‘Get back to your car — I will find you,’” he added. He also told the couple at Hawkinson Bridge to drive back to Worthington and wait at Lakeside Travel Plaza.

Using the locator map, Vander Kooi drove his tractor from Hawkinson Bridge north to 280th Street, then west to Palm Avenue and back south. He found the young man and woman just north of 300th Street, near Doug Buntjer’s cattle lot and Pickerel Park.

“They got into my tractor,” Vander Kooi said. “They were pretty shook up and really, really cold.”

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Blowing snow caused poor visibility and the wind and plummeting temperatures combining to make spending time outdoors an uncomfortable experience for anyone unprepared.

The couple said they were trying to get home and went down the wrong road.

They didn’t say how long they’d been stuck, or how far they tried to walk, but Vander Kooi said there were no longer any visible tracks behind their car, and they were getting low on gas.

When the young man said his feet hurt and that he’d seen some purple skin, Vander Kooi decided the best place to take them was the Sanford Worthington Medical Center Emergency Department.

He drove his John Deere tractor right up to the ambulance bay and let them out.

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“Whether they went in (to the ER), I don’t know,” he said. “I figured they were better off getting picked up there, but (frostbite) was something they shouldn’t fool around with.”

The friends met the two young people at the hospital. Though they had thought they could help, they, too, were unfamiliar with the area. From their location at Hawkinson Bridge to Pickerel Park is roughly two miles.

As for the two rescued individuals, Vander Kooi said they had decent coats, but they were wearing tennis shoes instead of winter footwear. He didn’t ask their names, but he hopes they will be OK.

The two-day blizzard was one of the worst Vander Kooi has experienced. His family owns Ocheda Dairy south of Worthington, and he has an outdoor lot on his home place.

“(The cattle) look surprisingly good,” Vander Kooi said. “I was more concerned than I’ve been in a long time. We didn’t lose any animals, but I was concerned for a long time.”

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Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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