'The power of nature is ruthless': Uncle shares story of 13-year-old's drowning in north-central Minn.
CROSBY, Minn.—When Brainerd native Chris Crust thinks of his nephew Murdoch, he thinks of the boy's light-hearted nature and independent streak.
"He was kind of a wild child like his dad," Chris said. "A curious kid, a happy-go-lucky kid. ... Everybody loved him a lot."
Instead of laughing at 13-year-old Murdoch Crust's jokes, Chris and the rest of the Crust family are mourning his loss. Their lives changed in mere moments Friday night, July 20, when a strong current in Serpent Creek swept Murdoch into Armour No. 2 mine pit lake in Crosby, where he slipped below the water and never resurfaced.
The Crow Wing County Dive Team would recover Murdoch's body less than 24 hours later in water 92 feet deep as several members of the Crust family stood by on shore. Officials identified the boy in a news release Monday.
But Friday evening, the family was gathered from near and far—including Minneapolis, where Murdoch lived—for a multi-generational get-together at cabins owned by True North Base Camp. Chris said they were enjoying each other's company along with the stream and lake, but mostly from shore. The lazy, calm waters of Serpent Creek in the late afternoon stood ankle deep, and were easily traversed.
And then the rain came. The family retreated to the cabins for a meal, during which a brief but torrential downpour interrupted otherwise pleasant weather.
"There was this crazy, random rainfall, and it rained really hard," Chris said. "We went up and had lunch and then the rain stopped pretty quickly."
Murdoch and his cousins—Chris and wife Elizabeth's children, Ruby and Oliver—wanted to go back down toward the water to play.
"I remember my wife specifically saying to them, don't even go in the water," Chris said. "We weren't playing Frisbee. We wouldn't play Frisbee down by a rushing stream of water."
Chris said Murdoch found a Frisbee, possibly while digging in the sand, and was tossing it around. The Frisbee got away from him, Chris said, and Murdoch walked into the stream to retrieve it—just as Murdoch's father Cory and grandfather Dave warned the kids should wear life jackets near the water.
"It was calm and we were walking around in the stream a half-hour ago," Chris said. "I don't think he realized the current was going to be way stronger."
Murdoch lost his footing in the strong current and was pulled into waters of the mine pit lake, in an area where a steep drop-off gave way to waters in excess of 90 feet deep.
"At that point, my brother (Murdoch's father Cory) yelled, 'Are you OK?'" Chris said. "He didn't say anything. So my brother Cory jumped in and swam after him."
Chris worked to remove his shoes and jumped in after his brother, making it midway when Cory reached Murdoch.
"Cory was trying to bring him back to shore, but the current was so strong," Chris said. "He was panicking and Cory was trying to drag him away from the current."
Cory yelled for help, and his own father Dave responded by grabbing any nearby life jackets and floating toys. In the meantime, Chris said Cory started struggling and taking in water as Murdoch panicked. Cory began to swim toward shore as Chris reached Murdoch himself.
"I was trying to drag Murdoch, but Murdoch was just pulling me underwater. I had to swim to shore, too," Chris said.
Cory barely made it to shore, Chris said, coughing and throwing up, and Chris struggled, too. When Chris got to shore, he grabbed the life jackets his father gathered and swam back out in search of Murdoch.
"I swam around and looked for him. But there was nothing. He was gone."
The sheriff's office and several other agencies responded soon after. A rescue drone and Minnesota State Patrol helicopter searched from above, while divers and boats looked for Murdoch from the water.
Responders suspended the search at nightfall due to hazardous underwater conditions, resuming at 7 a.m. Saturday. In addition to uneven and difficult underwater terrain, the sheriff's office reported the search was complicated by low visibility in the water, no greater than 18 inches. Officials noted this was likely due to the rainfall and strong current.
Using side scan sonar on a sheriff's office boat, responders identified what was later confirmed to be Murdoch's body. About noon, divers recovered the body, which was transported to the Ramsey County Medical Examiner's Office for autopsy.
"We did what we could do. We tried," Chris said. "It could have been either one of my children right next to him. He was standing with both my kids right on the edge of the water earlier in the day."
A photo captured by Chris shows the three cousins in ankle-deep water, just an hour before the rainfall, surrounded by the calm lake and July sunshine. Murdoch had a special bond with his cousins, wrote Chris' wife Elizabeth in an email.
"Murdoch was filled with energy and tons of love for his cousins. ... Ollie is his 10-year-old cousin with whom he shared many common interests, their favorite being the card game Magic the Gathering," Elizabeth wrote. "The boys and their dads would get together often to play Magic games. Murdoch was curious and inquisitive and noticed all the details about everything. It was never quiet when he was around. He was truly one in a million."
The family hosted Murdoch's wake Monday, with his cremation planned for next week.
"I want to remind people that the power of nature is ruthless and in the blink of an eye you can lose a loved one," Chris said. "You just can't underestimate the power of nature. It can happen anywhere, to anyone."
How to help
A drive to collect funds and provide meals for Murdoch's family, including parents Cory and Nicole and sister Summer, was organized. Visit www.mealtrain.com/trains/eyg5ze to donate, or for those in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area, sign up for meal delivery.