Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Traci LeBrun
Moose Lake Star Gazette 

Bruno teen drowns in Kettle River


Friends from the Sandstone's Evangelical Free Church youth group gather at the Kettle River to commemorate Dustin Compton. Dustin was a regular attender of the group.

A drowning occurred in the Kettle River at Banning State Park, west of Askov, on Wednesday, July 6. The victim, 15-year-old Dustin Compton of Bruno, was swimming with friends when the accident occurred.

At 4:35 p.m. on July 6, the Pine County Sheriff's Office received a 911 call of a possible drowning in the Kettle River at Banning State Park. Deputies, Department of Natural Resource (DNR) officers, personnel from Askov and Sandstone fire departments, and Essentia ambulance crew responded. First responding officers were informed three teens were swimming across the Kettle River when one began to have trouble.

According to the reports from the two teens, one 16-year-old and one 13-year-old, both girls, who were with Compton at the time of the accident, the three teens biked to Banning State Park on the afternoon of July 6, and upon arrival, decided to swim in the Kettle River before a youth outing that was to take place at one of the teen's home. The teens entered the park and, according to their report, headed down "Hell's Gate Trail" to find the river.

Compton reportedly walked down the trail toward a sandy area along the river, and the two teen girls followed. Compton walked into the ankle deep water fully clothed wearing his jeans and shirt. The teens asked him why he was wearing his jeans in the water, and Compton replied that he always swam like that in the river. Compton then dove into the deeper water, according to their statements, and the girls eventually joined him.

The group spotted a sandy spot with a dead tree on it on the other side of the river to which they all decided to swim. The group reached the middle of the river where the water was over their heads. The girls reported feeling tired and decided to stop and back floated to conserve energy. Compton kept swimming toward two rocks in the river and began struggling. The girls said that was when he started yelling for help.

"We swam towards him as fast as we could," stated the 16-year-old. "We got to him and had a hold of his arms and tried to pull him toward a rock that was about three to four feet away from us." The girls reported not feeling a current where they were located.

"We had his arms and then he tried going on my back," stated the 16-year-old. "He pushed me under, and I swallowed a bunch of water and couldn't breathe. I swam toward the rock, to catch my breath and was going to go back."

The 13-year-old girl recalled, "I stayed with him and tried to pull him to the rock, but he pulled me under. I couldn't breathe and had to go get air." The girl was able to find the surface and get the air she needed.

At that point, the 16-year-old girl stated that Compton was yelling for help and she responded telling him to be calm and to lay on his back and take his jeans off. "It looked like he was trying to take his pants off but couldn't because he was panicking," she said.

The 13-year-old girl climbed onto rocks that were in the water and tried to get to him that way. The 16-year-old girl went back into the deep water and swam back toward him as he was yelling for help. The girl reported seeing Compton bobbing under the water and then going under. This was the last time they saw him. The second girl came back in the water, and they reported kicking around in the water, trying to find him and grab a hold of him again.

They swam back to the other side, knowing they needed to call 911. Two nearby park goers heard their yelling. While one of the girls called 911 for help, the other girl took one of the bystanders back to the place they last saw Compton. The woman dove in and unsuccessfully searched for Compton. The 16-year-old reported that within about 10 minutes, law enforcement arrived on the scene.

"The river looked really calm," reflected the 16-year-old. "He could swim. He was always the first one off the diving board and in the pool. But I think it was his pants, and he was panicking."

A ground search along the shore was assisted by an air search from the Minnesota State Patrol helicopter. The St. Louis County Rescue Squad responded from Duluth and assisted in the search with sonar and an underwater camera. The victim was recovered from the river just before 11 p.m. The body was transported to the Midwest Medical Examiner's Office for autopsy.

District 10 Conservation Officer Bret Grundmeier, who was part of the search party, stated of the river conditions at the time of the drowning, "That section of the Kettle River is very deceiving. Standing on the bank and looking across the water, flow appears to be fairly stable and not real fast, but that is absolutely not the case.

"There are rapids upstream and downstream from that area, and the water is moving faster than it looks to a person standing on shore. While we were searching the water with equipment, there were areas of the river where water flow was slow and areas where flow was very fast. Those levels of flow changed quickly from one side of the river to the other and also changed at different depth levels. The depth levels also changed often and went from fairly deep to fairly shallow with the bottom consisting of everything from giant boulders to logs and brush to sand.

"All these things are common with rivers the size of the Kettle and exactly the reason swimming in rivers of any kind is extremely dangerous. Water flow is not consistent and cannot be predicted in rivers. One area can be calm, and just a few feet away, there can be a strong current pulling you downstream or toward the bed of the river due to the shape and makeup of the river and river bottom."

According to current DNR river level markings, the Kettle River in the area near Banning State Park is at a low to medium level and was not noted for using caution on the DNR website river level map.

Pine County Sheriff Jeff Nelson said, "A river is different than a lake, and the current does play a role. People need to use much caution when swimming in the river." Nelson encourages people to take swimming lessons and CPR/first responder training.

"The girls did a good job trying to reach the victim," added Nelson, "however, a large percentage of water accident victims are would-be rescuers who get into a bad situation when they are trying to help and become secondary victims."

East Central School was open on Thursday for grief support and that this was the second death of a teen student at East Central this year.


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