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2 teenage girls dead, search underway for 3rd missing in southern Alberta river

2 girls dead, search underway for 3rd on southern Alberta river
WATCH ABOVE: Search teams were in the St. Mary River in southern Alberta on Thursday after a swimming and canoeing outing near Spring Coulee ended in tragedy. Taz Dhaliwal has the latest.

A search continued in southern Alberta Friday for a 17-year-old girl who disappeared after a boating incident on Wednesday evening that left two other teenage girls from a southern Alberta Hutterite colony dead.

On Wednesday at around 10:30 p.m., RCMP and EMS crews were called to a drowning in the area of Spring Coulee on the St. Mary River. Spring Coulee is a hamlet located about 50 kilometres south of Lethbridge.

RCMP said Thursday morning that a group of about 10 people went swimming and canoeing earlier Wednesday. At around 7:30 p.m., three female youths “encountered difficulty” while they were trying to get out of the water, police said.

RCMP on Thursday, June 11, 2020, searching for a missing teenage girl who was swept down the St. Mary River near Spring Coulee in southern Alberta on the previous evening.
RCMP on Thursday, June 11, 2020, searching for a missing teenage girl who was swept down the St. Mary River near Spring Coulee in southern Alberta on the previous evening. Global News

One girl was located and pronounced dead at the scene. Two other girls were swept away, police said. Lethbridge search and rescue crews worked through the night and at about 6:30 a.m. Thursday, a second girl was found and pronounced dead.

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Senior members of the Spring Valley Hutterite Colony told Global News the two girls whose bodies were recovered were 17-year-old Linda Waldner and 16-year-old Martha Waldner. The missing teen is 17-year-old Naomi Waldner.

Colony members said the girls were strong swimmers but the river conditions made it difficult to swim at the time. None of them were wearing life-jackets, they said.

“My understanding is that [the river] was described to me as being swollen and engorged, typical problems with [that] this time of year in the spring runoff and whatnot,” RCMP Cpl. Tammy Keibel said.
“But there [were] no warnings or anything that we were aware of at this time for the river.”

Naomi is described as five-feet-two-inches tall with long, dark hair that would have been in a braid. She was wearing a long, green dress with sleeves when she vanished.

The search for her continued Thursday with the assistance of RCMP air services. Community members said search divers were being brought in from Manitoba to help find Naomi’s body.

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The search continued into Thursday evening and resumed Friday morning.

Lethbridge Search and Rescue are assisting along with watercraft support from the Redcliff RCMP. Additional search resources include a local river guide and the Hutterian Emergency Aquatic Response Team (HEART) from Manitoba. HALO Air Ambulance also donated a fixed-wing aircraft to assist with the search.

“It is absolutely inspiring to see the community come together during such a tragic time,” Raymond/Magrath detachment commander Sgt. Kevin Wright said Friday.

‘Our hearts go out to them’

Cpl. Shane Ryan with the Redcliff RCMP said they have been working with city authorities to control the amount of water coming through the dam to help them in the search.

“For a short period of time, they’re going to be able to decrease the flow in the river in increments and we’re hoping that by bringing the water levels down, it’s going to do two things: one, it’s going to decrease the amount of water we physically have to look through and two, it’s going to increase the visibility,” Ryan said.

HEART members drove to the area overnight Thursday.

“When we hear there’s a drowning at a Hutterite colony, we respond right away, get in contact with the people here right away,” said Paul Maendel, dive team co-ordinator with HEART.

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“[We] found out what the situation was and got on the road in a couple of hours. It’s a long drive to get here.”

The team said it has experience with assisting in similar emergency situations in water, although they will not be able to dive into the river due to the strong currents, rocks and shallowness.

It said it understands what the families, along with the community, are going through.

“I think the waiting is the hardest part because you never know if you will recover somebody and so the anxiety level here is high,” Maendel said.

“The community has been through a lot with [these] drownings, so our hearts go out to them.”

Both the RCMP and HEART have been using sonar technology in the search, but both parties say even that tool presents its own set of limitations.

RCMP said some other challenges they are facing include not having enough manpower for the day, especially with it being a Friday afternoon.

However, more resources will be available over the weekend with another rescue team from Medicine Hat slated to join their efforts.

“We will not stop until we’ve eliminated every opportunity to find this girl,” said Ryan.

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Ryan reminded people to always practise water safety by wearing a life-jacket whenever entering bodies of water with strong currents and difficult swimming conditions.

Colony members are asking anyone fishing, camping or walking in the area to keep an eye out for her.

Two girls are dead and one is missing after a swimming and canoeing outing in southern Alberta Wednesday, June 10, 2020.
Two girls are dead and one is missing after a swimming and canoeing outing in southern Alberta Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Global News

— With files from Caley Ramsay, Global News