Two teenage girls drowned and efforts are still underway to find a third who was swept away when a group of young people from a Hutterite colony were swimming and canoeing on the swollen St. Mary River in southern Alberta.
CBC News has learned the teens are all from a Hutterite colony of about 100 people in the area, the Spring Valley Hutterite Colony. It's believed the teens were all 16 or 17 years old.
Karl Peterson, chair of Alberta Colony Educators, works with the Spring Valley Hutterite Colony and said the drownings would have a deep and lasting impact on the community.
"It's like one big family," Peterson said. "It's like losing family. Even though three families lost a daughter, it's like all of them are deeply impacted."
Community member George Waldner told The Canadian Press that everyone in the colony is in shock.
"Words can't describe how heavy it is," Waldner said in the wire service interview Thursday.
He added that he did not want to identify the three girls out of respect for their families. Waldner is the minister for Spring Valley Hutterite Colony.
He said Hutterite colonies from other parts of the province and Saskatchewan have arrived to support people who are grieving.
"Everybody is tight in the community," he said. "Relatives show up and everybody comes together."
Canoeing on the river
CBC News has learned that a group of older teens, including four boys and around six to seven girls, were canoeing on the river as they often did in the Spring Coulee area southwest of Lethbridge on Wednesday. It appears the strength of the swollen river caught them off-guard.
"The river was a little higher, which makes it fun and that's what young people do," Waldner said. "But it was a little too aggressive and I don't think they knew the river was swift like that."
RCMP from Milk River and Raymond were dispatched at about 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday after three teens weren't able to get out of the river.
One of the girls was located and pronounced dead at the scene while the two others were swept down river, which was described by RCMP Cpl. Tammy Keibel as more swollen with water than usual.
Lethbridge Search and Rescue worked through the evening to find the two missing girls.
On Thursday, at about 6:30 a.m., a second teen was located and pronounced dead, RCMP said.
The RCMP was still at the colony, speaking with families and continuing the search for the third teen as of Thursday afternoon.
Hutterite colonies are deeply religious and highly private, Peterson said, and would likely lean on their faith in the days to come as they grieve.
"They'll feel this deeply and it'll sting for a long time, but because of their deep faith they seem to have a resilience greater than the average person," Peterson said.
"I've been through this before with deaths on colonies, and if you talk to the parents, they'll tell you straight up that, 'I believe heaven just got another angel today.'"
With files from Elise Von Scheel, Joel Dryden, John Gibson and The Canadian Press
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