A semi truck slid off Interstate 35 at the St. Louis River in Scanlon at 4:43 a.m. Friday morning, leading to a search and rescue operation that lasted several hours. Ultimately, the driver was found deceased in the river after rescuers from numerous law enforcement and firefighting agencies came together to search for him.
The truck slid off the northbound lane of I-35 just before the bridge and ended up on its side partially submerged in the water in the median between the north- and southbound bridges, Cloquet Area Fire District Chief Kevin Schroeder said. Witnesses called to report the accident.
It was the season’s first winter storm, and high winds and snow made visibility poor and roads were already slick when the semi accident occurred.
The St. Louis County Sheriff's Office brought its larger water rescue boat to aid in the search while CAFD firefighters donned waterproof water rescue suits to search the river on foot that morning.
The CAFD firefighters discovered the driver’s body just over two hours after the accident and walked into the water “downshore from the bridges” to get him, Schroeder said, adding that the water was not shallow at that point in the river. Once the firefighters got the man’s body to shore, the rescue boat took off pick him up from the staging area near the River Inn in Scanlon.
CAFD firefighters were joined by emergency responders from Esko Volunteer Fire Department, the St. Louis County Rescue Squad as well as officers from the Cloquet Police Department, Carlton County Sheriff’s Office and Minnesota State Patrol.
“It’s not the worst but it ranks up there,” Schroeder said when asked about the rescue conditions with driving snow and wind.
“It could be colder,” said Carlton County Chief Deputy Brian Belich, who was assisting at the staging area.
“That’s the saving grace,” Schroeder agreed. “It could be below zero. The weather couldn’t get any worse, but at least we can work in these temperatures.”
No other vehicles were involved in the early morning accident, Schroeder said.
There were dozens of other accidents Friday morning, mostly fender benders, Schroeder said. Area schools ran classes as normal, something both Schroeder and Belich expressed surprise about.
Road conditions throughout Carlton County were poor most of the morning Friday. As of about 9:30 a.m. the National Weather Service reported snow totals at 7 inches in Mahtowa, and 5 inches in Esko.
“It just needs to warm up and start melting this slop,” Belich said.
The Cloquet Police Department issued an advisory at 7:12 a.m., urging people to stay off the roads if they could, and drive with extra caution if not.
“If you must travel this morning, plan extra time to arrive at your destination, slow down, and give extra space between vehicles for braking,” the announcement urged.
The truck had been removed and I35 reopened to traffic by noon.