A.J. Benson had to move fast.
The Grand Forks-based U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent woke up to a dispatch call at 2 a.m. Wednesday from the Red Lake (Minn.) Police Department.
Four people were missing in a boat on Lower Red Lake, and police needed air assistance for the search.
“So we scrambled out of bed, got in the helicopter and flew over there,” said Benson, who is assigned to the North Dakota Air Branch of CBP’s Office of Air and Marine.
Benson and Greg Abner, the branch’s director of air operations, flew the 70 air miles from their base in Grand Forks to the lake.
A boat with two adults and two children had been reported missing after failing to return to shore around 8 or 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Benson said four law enforcement boats from the Police Department searched the water for the missing boat. But, because of high winds and waves, it was difficult for boats to search the lake, which, at 288,000 acres, is the largest lake completely bordered by Minnesota.
Benson and Abner helped out by flying about 3,000 feet above the lake and scanning the water with an infrared camera.
They eventually located the boat near the center of the lake. Benson said it looked to be a 14- or 15-foot boat with an outboard motor, and four people appeared to be lying in the bottom.
When they shined their searchlight on it, one of the people started waving his or her arms as if he or she were in distress, Benson said.
The helicopter then helped guide the search boats to the vessel. Once they had it in tow, the helicopter had to fly back to base because of a fuel shortage.
Benson credited the Red Lake Police Department for its hard work in the dark, wavy conditions.
“Those guys worked a lot harder than we did,” he said.
The department could not be reached for comment for the story.
Benson said he does not know what caused the boat to go missing, but he did say that the four people rescued appeared to be in fine condition.
Abner said the important take-away from the rescue is the value of collaboration among federal, state and local agencies. The Office of Air and Marine helps out with all federal, state and local agencies that need assistance, which he said is a great asset to help agencies protecting and serving the public.
“These are federal assets that we have and it’s credit to (the U.S. Department of) Homeland Security and to Customs and Border Protection that we can get out there in an hour’s time and get to local law enforcement to help out the American people,” he said.