Vermillion teen drowns in attempt to save sibling
By David Lias
The body of a Vermillion teenager who disappeared in the icy waters of the Big Sioux River on March 14 was recovered by rescue workers the next day.
Madison Wallace, 16, apparently drowned after she entered the river to save her little brother, Garrett Wallace, 6, also of Vermillion, after he entered the water. The incident happened at Falls Park in Sioux Falls, in a stretch of river below the falls.
A bystander, Lyle Eagletail, 28, of Sioux Falls, also plunged into the river March 14 to help the two siblings. Crews removed his body from the river on March 16.
Garrett Wallace was eventually able to exit the river shortly after the incident occurred. Despite numerous eyewitness accounts, it is still unclear whether Madison Wallace, Eagletail, or both played a role in saving him.
“We do have some sad news,” Sioux Falls Fire Chief Jim Sideras told reporters early Friday afternoon, March 15. “We did find the young girl who went in after her brother. We found her in an area we where we thought it would be best to look for her.”
The teen’s body was recovered near a man-made dam located about a block downstream from the falls.
“She’s been removed, her family has been notified,” Sideras said, “and she’s been taken to one of the local hospitals.”
“I talked with the father, and the mother (at the time) was going back home (to Vermillion). She’s now returning back to Sioux Falls,” he said. “They are still in a state of shock. Our prayers are with them, and we’re just trying to help them cope the best that we can.”
Sioux Falls has made their fire chaplains available to the Wallace family, he said. “It’s going to be a long, slow process for them.”
Crews used backhoes Friday to remove ice from the river. The equipment remained busy through the day as the search for Eagletail continued.
“We’re still looking for the young man,” Sideras said March 15. “We still have some issues with the water. We still have ice to move out. We hope this will go fairly quick; we just don’t know time wise because of the conditions that we have going on in the water.”
Falls Park, a city tourist attraction where people often picnic and wedding pictures are taken, remained closed to the public on March 15.
“We don’t want the public down here yet, because we still have a lot of trucks here,” he said. “We anticipate that we could be here another 12 hours. We just don’t know at this time. We’re still maintaining a dive team from Minnehaha County.”
Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County law enforcement and rescue personnel quickly responded March 14 and began searching the river for Wallace and Eagletail. They were initially hampered at that time by heavy flows in the river.
“We had so much water flowing last night,” Sideras said. “We were able to shut off the water so it’s not as bad as it was last night. Last night, the water was higher, and that created an area for someone to be moved quite a distance. Especially when it (the river) narrows in and funnels – it will push a body quite a bit farther along.”
Other challenges to searchers include debris in the water and undertows. The frothing water below the falls also created a thick layer of foam that Thursday night, March 14, was 10 feet deep in places and hampered search efforts.
“It was also very cold and icy, and the granite is very slippery when it is wet,” Sideras said, “so we’re just not sure what caused the boy to fall into the water.”
As heavy equipment removed ice from the river channel, divers wearing special gear to protect them from the cold entered the water.
“The divers are going in zero visibility water,” the fire chief said. “You can’t see your hand in front of your face. It’s all by feel, so it’s a very slow process. There’s a lot of debris in the water that’s going to slow up their process, too. They couldn’t go in with the ice for a lot of reasons. The ice and the water moving creates a lot of problems, but they were able to go in today.”
Divers could encounter everything from tree limbs to re-bar when they enter the river’s channel.
“There’s things from 20 or 30 years ago – when you look this area, and how there’s been construction here, there could be just about anything in this water,” Sideras said. “The other thing we’re working with is the stress factor for our firefighters and our law enforcement officers. They’ve been down here for nearly 24 hours, and we’re expecting another 12 hours. We’ve been moving and rotating crews out so that we can make sure they don’t get overstressed, and that they remain healthy with low temperatures and don’t experience hypothermia.”
The Vermillion School District brought together guidance counselors and outside resources March 14 to meet with students grieving the drowning death of their classmate.
Madison Wallace was a sophomore at Vermillion High School, Superintendent Mark Froke said.
Her younger brother, Garrett, 6, attends kindergarten in Vermillion.
Froke said the school district’s crisis team, made up of administrators and guidance counselors, met early March 14 and assembled resources to meet with students.
“Even though this is quite a sad and shocking situation for everyone at the school, we’re trying to maintain a normal school day and be respectful and help all of those who need assistance with their grieving,” Froke told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
A fund has been set up for the Wallace family at Wells Fargo banks, in care of the Madison Wallace Family Fund. You can also donate online at http://www.madisonwallacefund.com/index.html .
Garrett Wallace was reportedly climbing on rocks Thursday evening when he fell into the frothing water, Sideras said.
Witness accounts differ on whether someone pushed the boy out of the water or he popped up on a rock before being pulled ashore. Emergency workers carried the boy away from the river wrapped in a blanket and he was not injured, he said.
“He wasn’t in that long,” Sideras said.
Napoleon Ducheneaux, 21, said his friend fell into the river while trying to help the boy and his sister. He was holding onto the woman and boy by their hands before his hands began sliding, then he just “slipped and disappeared,” Ducheneaux told
The Associated Press late Thursday.
“These people literally jumped in without thinking of their own safety and trying to rescue that child,” he said. “It’s a very noble act that they did, and they probably contributed to saving that boy’s life.”
Sioux Falls is named after the river’s cascading waterfalls in the park, which is a popular spot in the summer and spring. For the first time in months, the temperature rose to around 50 degrees in Sioux Falls on March 14.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.