Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Drowning devastates family

Tragedy underlines dangers of thin ice

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The tragic death of a six-year-old boy has devastated a Point Douglas family and prompted stern warnings about the dangers of thin ice.

The sombre father of six-year-old Nathaniel Thorassie stood on the banks of the Red River Sunday afternoon and surveyed the partially frozen water under which police believe his son slipped Saturday.

Nathaniel's family had only moved into the neighbourhood on Wednesday.

"I'm speechless right now," said Daniel Thorassie, Nathaniel's father. The boy fell through the ice on the Red River near the Disraeli Bridge Saturday afternoon and is presumed drowned.

"He was very energetic and full of life," Thorassie said after a ceremony on the snowy riverbank late Sunday afternoon with an aboriginal elder and drummers.

Nathaniel and his 10-year-old brother Ralph Chartrand Jr. were reportedly playing with hockey sticks, smashing chunks of ice and throwing them into the open water. They were near the water's edge when the ice broke away and they fell into the river.

Nathaniel's brother Ralph was pulled to safety by passerby Kole Devisscher, who threw a rope to the boy.

Ralph was taken to hospital in stable condition. Thorassie, who no longer lives with Nathaniel's mom and her children from a previous relationship, said he wasn't sure how the older boy was doing Sunday.

"They just moved to the area on the first," Thorassie said.

On Sunday, a small group gathered at the river's edge.

"This is where the boy went down," said Larry Monkman, an elder at Thunderbird House who was contacted for spiritual support.

Drummers sang a travelling song and Nathaniel's dad and paternal aunts offered tobacco to the Creator.

"We offered a prayer for his safe journey home," Monkman said.

Earlier Sunday, Nathaniel's maternal aunt and his two older siblings stood at the river's edge with their heads hung low. One older brother sobbed.

Nathaniel's aunt said the family is devastated by his tragic death, and relatives are unable to speak with media.

"It's the worst-case scenario for us," said Sgt. Rob Riffel, co-ordinator of the police underwater search and recovery unit. "Most of my guys have kids, young kids, so it's difficult."

Police have yet to recover the body because of river and ice conditions.

On Sunday, Riffel said dive crews couldn't get into the water by boat due to a thin section of ice near the water's edge. He said they were trying to figure out how to safely get divers into the river so they could start searching for the body, possibly today or Tuesday.

Riffel said the body is likely near the thin edge of ice along the bank, which makes it difficult for divers to retrieve since they have to plan alternate locations to surface. Dive teams will search for the boy in "blackwater" conditions, which means they have zero visibility and must feel around to locate him.

Riffel said the 10-year-old boy is extremely lucky to be alive since the body's muscles cramp up in frigid water, and there is a small window of time to rescue people before they succumb.

"The chances of survival are low," he said. "That 10-year-old boy was extremely lucky that a man happened by."

News of Nathaniel's drowning death shocked area residents, and prompted police to warn Winnipeggers to stay off the ice.

James Kane's two-storey home looks out toward the river where the two boys fell in; Kane said both he and his wife were shocked by the tragedy.

"You've got to teach kids not to go on the river, especially when there's open water," said Kane, who has a three-year-old daughter.

Other community leaders are hoping to raise money for the boy's family in the coming weeks.

"It's such a tragedy," said Roanna Hepburn, chairwoman of the Point Douglas Residents Committee. "It's just awful. That ice isn't even frozen."

At another spot on the river, Wendy Cameron watched in horror Sunday afternoon as a young boy, who appeared to be about 13 years old, crossed the river near patches of open water.

"I was in tears saying, 'Please God, don't let anything happen,' " Cameron said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 6, 2010 A3

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