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Published April 13, 2012, 12:10 AM

Friend Says MN Sailboat Tragedy Traumatic for Father

BEMIDJI, Minn. – One of Dan Risland’s closest friends said he was a good father and believes he’s being unfairly criticized in the sailboat accident that critically injured one of his sons and killed two younger ones.

By: Steve Wagner, Forum Communications

BEMIDJI, Minn. – One of Dan Risland’s closest friends said he was a good father and believes he’s being unfairly criticized in the sailboat accident that critically injured one of his sons and killed two younger ones.

Leah Rowland of Bemidji described Dan Risland as a terrific father who sailed the boat several times before taking his sons out in it.

The 1972 fiberglass sailboat sunk last Friday, sending Risland and his three sons – 8-year-old Isaiah, 6-year-old Zechariah and 2-year-old Jacob – into Clearwater Lake, about 30 miles northwest of Bemidji. The water temperature was 40 degrees.

Risland, unable to get the boys to shore, swam to summon help. First responders pulled the brothers from the water about an hour later.

The two younger brothers died, apparently from hypothermia, while Isaiah remains in critical, yet stable, condition at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis.

“He did know what he was doing with the boat,” Rowland said Thursday. “It wasn’t like he was an irresponsible weekend warrior.”

She said Risland is a close personal friend who has spent every holiday the past four years with her and her husband, who previously worked with Risland. The two families spent their free time together and often went boating, camping, canoeing and ice boating.

She said his devotion and love for the boys is unquestionable.

“He was dedicated to the boys,” Rowland said. “What kind of man would take on three sons, one of them an infant? He’s an incredible father.”

Rowland said Dan Risland made it a point to take the boys to frequently visit their maternal grandparents in Blackduck, even though he and Ruth Risland had divorced.

The accident has been traumatic for the father, who was raising three terrific and “spunky” children, she said.

“If you met the boys, you’d never forget (them),” Rowland said. “They are so cute.”

Each of the boys had their own personalities, she said.

“Isaiah is a lot like his dad,” Rowland said. “He loved to be outside and going and going.”

Zechariah was bit more of an inside kid and liked to read.

Jacob was starting to develop his own traits, too.

“He was such a daddy’s boy,” Rowland said. “He just glommed onto Danny.”

Some people have questioned his decision to take the boys sailing that day, she said. The temperature was in the upper 50s, but winds were gusting to more than 20 mph.

Rowland, who spent this past weekend at the hospital with the family, said the boat appeared safe and none of them had experienced any problems with it previously.

“This used to be a life boat off a ship,” she said. “It’s a deep boat.”

Dan Risland, the former mayor of Leonard, told family that he turned the boat, and water splashed into the boat. Then it took on water, sinking to the bottom of the lake rather than capsizing.

The Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office considers the accident an open investigation, but Sheriff Mike Erickson said no criminal charges will be filed.

Each of the boys wore life jackets, and Rowland said Dan Risland had taken the boat out on the water several times last year and on different lakes.

“It’s not the first time he sailed the boat,” she said. “He wanted to know how to use it before he took the kids.”

The boat remains on the bottom of the lake. Erickson said officials hope to use sonar to locate it before retrieving it, perhaps in the middle of next week.

The family has declined interview requests for the time being. Funeral arrangements with Cease Funeral Home for Zechariah and Jacob are pending.

Sara Staley, an aunt of Isaiah, continued to provide updates via CaringBridge, a website that allows families to keep a journal, post photos and provide updates.

“Isaiah slept for most of the night,” Staley wrote Thursday. “At one point, the nurse was moving him, and she asked him if he was comfortable, and he nodded his head. I asked him if he was tired, and he nodded his head.”

The previous evening, Staley wrote that Isaiah has had some moments of wakefulness.

“Mommy and Daddy were able to spend about 20 minutes with him tonight that he was incredibly responsive to them,” she wrote. “His eyes were open, and he looked toward them as they talked to him. He helped move his legs and moved his arms by himself when he was asked to squeeze a hand.”

Wagner is editor of the Bemidji Pioneer.

How to help

An evening of music and storytelling has been planned from 7-10 p.m. Sunday at Crossroads Church, 3354 Laurel Drive NW, Bemidji. The event is free, but offerings will raise money to help defray the family’s medical costs.

An April 21 benefit for Isaiah, Zech and Jake Risland at Evangelical Covenant Church, 5405 Hart Lane NW, Bemidji, includes a spaghetti dinner, bake sale and auction. However, a new time has been set for the event, which will be from 1-5 p.m.

Donations can be made at any Wells Fargo bank by submitting the money to the “Sara Staley for the benefit of the Risland Memorial Fund” with the account number 1764865869. Online transfers must include Sara Staley and the email address of IsaiahRisland@hotmail.com.

Donations also can be sent to the Dan Risland fund, Country Faith Church, P.O. Box 41, Clearbrook, MN 56634.

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