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Siblings pull pieces together after parents die in separate accidents

Brittany Bryant, Grand Forks, doesn't know a whole lot about raising teenagers. "I thought I'd have a few more years to go," said the 26-year-old mother of two girls, Sam, 10, and Jordan, 1. But, last year, both Brittany's parents were killed in ...

Brittany Bryant, Grand Forks, doesn't know a whole lot about raising teenagers.

"I thought I'd have a few more years to go," said the 26-year-old mother of two girls, Sam, 10, and Jordan, 1.

But, last year, both Brittany's parents were killed in separate, tragic accidents, and she was thrown into a whole new mothering role: She became the guardian of her now 16-year-old brother, Corbett Jeffery "CJ" Knoff.

Last July, Brittany and CJ's father, Craig Knoff, was killed working with a construction crew paving a roadway at Canad Inns in Grand Forks. Then, in January, their mother, Lisa Wedin, froze to death after her vehicle hit a ditch north of East Grand Forks.

During a recent interview with the Herald, Brittany at times cried about the suddenness of her parents' deaths or laughed softly when she remembered the good times they shared, while speaking about the challenges she faces as her brother's caretaker. Her eyes, red and swollen, often filled with tears ­because she said she was having a hard time sleeping as the date her father died approached.


Her youngest daughter, Jordan Bryant, also was keeping her awake at night, she said laughing. Her hands often met in a wringing gesture that she tried to suppress.

Everything in Brittany's life was coming together at the beginning of 2007.

The young woman who'd been a teenage mother reconciled with her father that spring, after a period of time in which she said her father employed a form of "tough love" to help her straighten out her life.

Brittany was 16 when she gave birth to daughter, Samantha Jacquemart. Still in high school, she struggled through new motherhood to graduate from Grand Forks Red River in 2000, thanks to her parents, she said.

She was headed toward a career in nursing, enrolled as a junior in UND's nursing program when her world spiraled out of control because of a drug addiction. Her father took her daughter from her; she then spent some time in jail and worked hard to overcome her addiction.

With a new perspective on life in 2006, Brittany regained custody of Sam. In March 2007, she married David Bryant, and the couple had Jordan soon afterward.

Brittany's father and brother moved into a small apartment with the young couple, with the intent that the entire family would purchase a home together. In fact, her father started work with Aggregate Industries to supplement his income from his lawn care business, Lawn Doctor, so the family would have a better chance at financing a home.

Then, tragedy struck.


"Every day I wake up ... there's something missing," Brittany said. "I still wait for my dad to come home, thinking this is not real."

The accident

On July 18, 2007, Knoff and another construction worker with Aggregate Industries were applying diesel fuel to a manhole cover, so the oil used in paving wouldn't stick on the cover. As Knoff was doing that, he apparently didn't hear or see the truck carrying the oil as it backed toward him, ultimately striking him and trapping him underneath. Emergency crews lifted the truck off Knoff but were not able to resuscitate him.

Brittany doesn't know why her father was outside the truck he was supposed to be driving, or why someone else took over the driving, she said.

"When (police officers) came to my door to tell me and they said that he'd been run over, I didn't believe it. I told them they had the wrong guy, my dad was driving," she said.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined the company was using a back-up beeper that wasn't loud enough to be heard at the worksite and that workers didn't have adequate training.

Although fined $14,000, Aggregate Industries, based in Moorhead, eventually settled and paid a $5,000 fine because of OSHA's findings.

Beyond that, the company or the driver won't be liable for Knoff's death.


That should change, Brittany said.

"If you are killed while you're working, your family is screwed. I think this should be known to people," she said.

When it comes to the death of a worker on a job site, there's just enough help to cover funeral costs and not much more, Brittany said. After her father's death, the family received $6,500 to pay for a funeral. And after that, as her brother's guardian and because he's a minor, she also received a lump sum payment of a couple thousand dollars. It's not enough, she said, for a life.

"My dad is gone. There's no price on that," she said. "If they gave me $10 million, I'd give it all up for just one minute with him."

North Dakota law provides that the spouse of a person killed on the job is eligible for as much as $250,000 in death benefits. Knoff was not married at the time of his death.

Those benefits also might be available to the guardian of any minor child the deceased worker leaves behind, according to John Halvorson, the agency's chief of employer services. He added that he could not talk about a specific case unless a beneficiary signed an information release form. Brittany said she did not know about the additional death benefits and did not know whether she would qualify for them.

And a civil suit against the company is out of the question. According to North Dakota's century code, "the payment of compensation or other benefits by the organization to an injured employee or to the injured employee's dependents in case death has ensued are in lieu of any and all claims for relief whatsoever against the employer of the injured or deceased employee."

Brittany said she'd like to see that law changed.


"It's fighting for my dad, for someone who always fought for us," she said.

Her father, she said, was the kind of person who would "give the shirt off his back to help people. We'd be late for school, and he'd stop to push someone out of the snow."

And though she knows the law won't change for her family, she thinks it should change for families in the future.

The second tragedy

Just six months after Craig Knoff's death, in bitter January cold, Brittany and CJ's mother, Lisa Wedin, was driving on a roadway north of East Grand Forks in the middle of the night when she missed a turn and went into a ditch. In a bid to get to the nearest farmhouse, Lisa Wedin got out of the vehicle and walked. She froze to death.

Wedin was a longtime Grand Forks postal worker who retired after 18 years of service. The annual food drive this year was dedicated to her and another retiree. Wedin struggled with "severe mental illness," Brittany said.

Brittany fondly remembered how her mother helped her through teenage pregnancy and always encouraged her to finish school.

Perhaps because of that, Brittany encourages CJ to take education seriously.


"Even through all of this, he's kept his grades up," she said.

CJ sat by his sister's side, occasionally offering a smile. He didn't talk much about his father, though at the time of Craig Knoff's death, CJ lived with him.

The two did everything together and were very close, Brittany said. Since their father's death, CJ has dropped interest in activities he used to share with his father -- playing ball, participating in Boy Scouts. With a shrug, CJ brushes off his sister's prompt to talk about it.

When asked if their relationship has changed since their parents' deaths, the two had a quick response.

"We're closer, I guess," CJ said.

"I think we talk more," Brittany added. "This is the funniest thing. I used to be cool, and now he's embarrassed of me."

The family rents a small two-bedroom apartment. She doesn't complain about the space, but she said it's her dream to get into a bigger, permanent home. Especially since she also took in her father's beloved pets, Katie, a Bichon Frise, and Lucky, an English setter.

"Two months before my dad died, Katie went missing. We put up fliers, called the local pounds," she said. "The day after my dad died, the postmaster in St. Michael (N.D.) called to say, 'We found the dog.' That's where my parents got married. It gave me the creepiest feeling. That's why I can't get rid of the dog."


The dog is a solid remnant of their father's life that both Brittany and CJ can hold on to.

"My whole perspective on life has changed," she said. "I could honestly walk out this door and die. It's happened twice in my family -- in freak accidents. It doesn't make sense to me, why this happened to my family. I mean, my dad, my mom, they were supposed to be there for my brother. His first date. When he got married. When he had babies. I feel like my brother got cheated."

From trying to figure out how to talk to him about the birds and the bees to setting a reasonable curfew he'll follow, Brittany has her hands full but said her brother is her rock.

"He's a really good judge of character; he's got excellent friends," she said, adding that she's not worried about him getting into trouble. "Being that I went through it all, I kinda know all the tricks. I'm not afraid to pull him out of class and get a UA (urine analysis). Or stop him at the door with a breathalyzer. We just take it one day at a time. As corny as that sounds, that's the only way you can do stuff."

Reach Nadeau at (701) 780-1118; (800) 477-6572, ext. 118; or send e-mail to snadeau@gfherald.com .

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