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Worker still missing after apparent fall from dam on Minn. River dam

Crews searching for the body of Thomas Stich focus their efforts Thursday below Xcel Energy's Minnesota Falls dam on the Minnesota River. Stich fell off a deck on the dam Wednesday. His life jacket was found about 100 yards downstream. Submitted

A search continued Thursday for a second day in the Minnesota River below Xcel Energy's Minnesota Falls dam for a worker who fell off the dam and is presumed drowned.

As of press time, searchers had not yet been able to recover the body of Thomas Stich, 50, a worker who had fallen off a deck on the Minnesota Falls dam located about two miles southeast of Granite Falls on the Minnesota River. Stich fell off the dam around 1 p.m. Wednesday as he was removing logs and debris that had plugged a gate on the dam, which once held a hydroelectric facility.

His family was at the scene on Thursday as searchers in boats worked the waters below the dam. Stich's life jacket had been found about 100 yards downstream of where he was believed to have fallen into the raging river.

"We're preparing for the worst,'' said John Stich, of Burnsville, a brother of the worker, when reached by telephone on Thursday morning.

Stich said they planned to remain until his brother's body can be recovered.

The Chippewa County Sheriff's Office is coordinating the search that has included boats from area law enforcement agencies and fire and rescue units, as well as from Hennepin County. The Hennepin County search team used a sonar system that had helped find victims of the I-35W bridge collapse.

Family members said they were told that authorities were also hoping to bring a crane to the site. It would be used to lower searchers over the water in the corner of the dam where Stich is believed to have fallen. Authorities believe his body may still be trapped by the powerful river currents churning the waters there.

Stich said his brother Tom is a union employee working under contract for Xcel Energy at the former Minnesota Valley power plant at Granite Falls. He identified him as being from Rush City, but Chippewa County reports a Harris address.

Tom Stich was working atop the Minnesota Falls dam on a deck as a fellow worker was present in a backhoe. The backhoe was used to grab debris removed by Stich and lift them from the water. John Stich said the co-worker said he turned around in the back hoe to drop some of the debris, and when he rotated back Tom Stich was no longer there.

The Minnesota River has been flowing at only a few feet below flood level, and the fast-moving waters have complicated search efforts. Stich said authorities told him that the gates at the Churchill Dam at Lac qui Parle were being closed to temporarily slow the river flow.

The missing worker is one of 11 siblings, and his wife and 25-year-old son are among the family members gathered and watching the search.

Ken Peterson, who lives at the site of the search, said this is the first drowning that has occurred there in the more than 70 years that he has lived below the dam. He opened his property to provide access for the search efforts.

Xcel Energy released a statement from Judy Poferl, president and CEO, Northern States Power Co: "This is truly a tragedy for our employee's family, friends and co-workers and for all of us at Xcel Energy. Our hearts go out to all who have been affected.

"Safety is our top priority, for our employees as well as the general public. We are fully cooperating with authorities in their search and investigation. We also will be conducting our own investigation to determine the cause of the accident.''

The tragedy at the dam occurs as Xcel Energy is seeking permits to remove the dam, which no longer serves a purpose for the company. It was built in 1905 and housed a hydroelectric facility until the 1950s. It also provided a reservoir of cooling water for its Minnesota Valley coal-fired plant, which no longer operates.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources dam safety division has ordered the company to either repair the structure or renovate it.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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