South Dakota town, church mourn drivers who died in highway washout
FORT YATES, N.D. — One of two people who died after driving into a washed-out section of highway on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation was going south and about to end a shift on a daily mail route. The other was going north and about to start a shift as a nurse.
Had floodwaters not swept away that bit of highway, they might have seen each other this Sunday. Both attended the same Mobridge, S.D., church.
Jim Vanderwal, 65, of Mobridge, was a driver with a U.S. mail contractor for about seven years, said his sister, Cindy Fjeldheim. He hauled mail in a 2-ton box van, making the run between Bismarck and Mobridge six days a week. He usually arrived in Mobridge about 6 a.m.
“He was almost home,” Fjeldheim said.
Vanderwal was a quiet man who kept to himself, she said. He loved hunting and the outdoors, and kept up on politics by doing research on his computer. He also had a strong belief in God, Fjeldheim said, and “could quote anything in the Bible.” He was the father of four grown children, two boys and two girls, and had several grandchildren.
As Vanderwal got closer to Mobridge early Tuesday, Trudy Peterson was leaving for work in the dialysis unit at the Indian Health Service in Fort Yates. She had worked previously as a nurse at Mobridge Regional Hospital and at nursing homes in Mobridge and Selby, S.D., said Mark Kaiser, 56, her friend and former co-worker at the hospital. The two had mutual friends and occasionally saw each other outside the hospital setting.
“She had a bubbly personality,” Kaiser said. “I’ll remember her laugh. She had a great, unique laugh.”
Peterson, 60, was a grandmother and the mother of three. Before her body was found, the news that she was missing traveled quickly at the Mobridge hospital, said Dr. Travis Henderson.
“People were trying to do their job, but it was surreal, too,” he said.
The two deaths have affected the city of Mobridge and in particular United Congregational Church, where Peterson and Vanderwal attended.
“It’s very noticeable,” said Misti Henderson, church secretary and Travis Henderson’s wife. “Every business I walk into, they’re talking about Trudy. And the fact that it’s two people, both from our church ...”
Vanderwal’s body was recovered Tuesday afternoon. Searchers found Peterson’s body Tuesday evening.
Rescue workers earlier Tuesday pulled the driver of a Sitting Bull College bus to safety. The man had surgery on his arm and finger Tuesday night, said Koreen Ressler, vice president of Sitting Bull College, but she hadn’t received any further updates. The college is not releasing the man’s name, Ressler said. Another man was rescued from the back of his pickup and taken to an area hospital. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and Standing Rock agencies didn't immediately have an update on his condition.
The road that washed out, BIA Road 3, known locally as the Kenel Road, will be out of service for some time, said Carl Kidder, BIA road crew mechanic. The road becomes Highway 1806 south of the North Dakota-South Dakota border.
“It won’t get fixed anytime soon,” he said. “My supervisor said it could be down a couple of months.”
Seven inches of rain overnight washed out a section of the road just north the North Dakota-South Dakota border. About 565 vehicles travel the road each day, said Jamie Olson, spokeswoman for North Dakota Department of Transportation. The department’s last count on the road was done in 2014.
People traveling south from Kenel can use a gravel road that goes west just north of the washout, Kidder said. People traveling north out of Mobridge can get to Bismarck or Fort Yates by going to McLaughlin and then north.