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2 nephews spot Tom Stich downstream from Minnesota Falls dam

Family and friends of Xcel Energy worker Thomas Stich are led down to the Minnesota River by law enforcement Friday afternoon after Stich's body was recovered from the river downstream of the Minnesota Falls dam. Stich, 50, of Harris, was removing debris from the dam Wednesday afternoon when he disappeared. Tribune photo by Susan Lunneborg

MINNESOTA FALLS -- The search for the body of Xcel Energy worker Thomas Stich ended late Friday morning when two nephews spotted his body downstream of the Minnesota Falls dam.

Stich, 50, of Harris, disappeared Wednesday afternoon while clearing debris from the dam. His life jacket was found about 100 yards downstream from where he was believed to have fallen into the Minnesota River.

Jeremy Stich, Tom's 25-year-old son from Pine City, said retrieving his dad's body was a relief to the family.

"It's over now," he said early Friday afternoon at the scene where family and friends were gathered outside the law enforcement perimeter, waiting for the coroner. " ... We're ready to take him home. We need to get him home."

The body was found about a half mile from the dam, according to Chippewa County Sheriff Stacy Tufto.

The body was floating in the middle of the river in an area that had been searched previously, he said. "Numerous boats had been through there."

Tufto said it was possible search efforts near the dam freed the body from the tumultuous currents there.

Efforts upstream to reduce the flow of the river may have helped, too.

"It was a good resolution after a tragic accident," he said. "The body's been returned to the family."

Deb Stich, Thomas Stich's former wife, said her two nephews spotted the body in the river. The family is assuming a crane brought in to assist in the search dislodged the body from the area of the dam.

John Stich, Thomas Stich's brother, told the Tribune on Thursday that Tom was a union employee working under contract for Xcel Energy.

Tom Stich was working atop the Minnesota Falls dam removing debris that had plugged a gate on the dam. A fellow worker was present in a backhoe which grabbed debris removed by Stich. John Stich said the co-worker said he turned around in the backhoe to drop some of the debris, and when he turned back Tom Stich was no longer there.

Jeremy Stich said Friday that they knew when they got word of the accident that there was only a slight chance that his dad could be alive.

"Putting that aside, the next thing on our list was to retrieve him," he said.

Mike Stich, Tom's older brother, said Xcel Energy has been good to their family during this ordeal.

"They have gone above and beyond the call. Our family is just so indebted to them," he said at the scene Friday afternoon. "They spared no expense."

Xcel was footing the bill for motels and meals for family members, he said. "They just did everything that was asked of them."

In a statement issued Friday, Judy Poferl, president and CEO of Northern States Power Co.-Minnesota, and Xcel Energy company, extended condolences to Tom Stich's family and his co-workers.

"It is our hope that the recovery will help provide closure to the family and Tom's co-workers at Xcel Energy," she said.

Sheriff Tufto said numerous agencies assisted in the search for Stich's remains.

"One agency couldn't have done it alone," he said. At least 35 people a day participated in the search.

There was cooperation between the Chippewa County and Yellow Medicine County sheriff's offices and a number of local fire departments, he said. "I can't say enough about the volunteer fire departments who came," he said.

A river near flood level and the location made the search particularly difficult, Tufto said. "It couldn't have happened at a worse spot."

The Minnesota State Patrol assisted and provided a helicopter to help with the search. Hennepin County sent a crew with sonar equipment. The Department of Natural Resources also assisted, and the Army Corps of Engineers shut down the dam at Lac qui Parle to bring down the river levels.

Located southeast of Granite Falls, the Minnesota Falls dam is no longer used for hydroelectric generation and Xcel is seeking permits to remove the dam.

"We will continue to work with the authorities as they investigate this tragic accident. Safety is a top priority for our company -- for employees as well as the general public," Poferl said in her statement.