Last Tuesday, Wayne and Jan Hoffman were walking their three dogs along Lake Superior in Tofte when they spotted a man on the rocky shore at Bluefin Bay Resort.
“He was going to go sit on the edge of shore and let the waves splash on him — this is what I’m thinking; this is what I saw,” Jan Hoffman, 70, recalled Monday from her home in Spring Green, Wis. “A wave took him in; he was in his bathing suit.”
Wayne Hoffman sprang into action, scrambling down to try to save the other man, who he did not know.
“I said, ‘Don’t … don’t. They’ll pull you in,’ ” Jan Hoffman recounted. “That was my husband; he always tried to help someone. …
“You know how slick the rocks are,” she said. “He reached out to grab (the other man’s) hand and my husband slid in also. They both struggled trying to get back to shore and neither one made it.”
Wayne Hoffman, 66, and the man he tried to save, Evan “Alec” Johnson, 40, of Menomonie, both lost their lives to the rough, frigid waters, victims of 6-foot waves that hindered rescue efforts.
Through interviews, accident reports and other documents, the News Tribune has pieced together the events of that foggy, blustery day. Frantic rescue attempts gave way to a harrowing scene in which Jan Hoffman and others on shore watched helplessly as her husband’s body floated away and out of sight — left to be recovered several hours later, after an intensive search.
Both men were staying at Bluefin Bay. Neither man knew the other. They each had been enjoying an afternoon along Lake Superior with family members when circumstances turned deadly.
The incident began innocently enough just after 3 p.m. Having just come out of a lakeside hot tub at the resort, Alec Johnson stood on the rocks along Lake Superior, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in an accident report filed with the state. A wave knocked him from his feet and into the lake, the report said.
Hoffman had eaten lunch at Lutsen Mountains and returned for a walk in Tofte Park with his wife when they first saw Johnson, and the events unfolded. Waves swept both men into the lake; the air temperature was 35 degrees and the water temperature 34 degrees, according to a water accident report filed with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.
That report said Wayne Hoffman told his wife, “Stay back and don’t try to help.”
Recalling the early attempts to rescue Johnson and her husband, Jan Hoffman said she was screaming and telling people to call 911.
“There was nothing there you could throw to someone on the beach as a lifeline,” she said. “They don’t expect people to be swimming that time of year.”
Dennis Rysdahl, owner and general manager of Bluefin Bay, said that two of the four employees involved in the rescue attempt early on are first responders with the Tofte Rescue Squad. Employees had to leave shore to retrieve life buoys and ropes from the pool area.
When asked if there should have been life-saving devices more readily available, Jan Hoffman said, “I don’t know if it would have saved him, but, yes, they need some kind of lifesaving thing there.”
Rysdahl said the drownings were the first in his 31-year association with the resort.
“We’re certainly going to discuss it with the homeowners’ association board,” he said. “We want to do anything we can to diminish the chances of anything like this happening again.”
Johnson was pulled from the water at 3:29 p.m. by his brother, Michael Johnson. The accident report said Michael Johnson “was able to move onto a stable area and grab his brother” from a rock ledge. Rysdahl said resort employees secured themselves with rope to help Michael Johnson and prevent him from also slipping into the lake. The shoreline was treacherous, Rysdahl said.
“It was the wave action at the shore that made the shoreline the most dangerous place to be,” he said. “The wave action in the first 10 to 15 feet out was the most hazardous.”
Alec Johnson later was pronounced dead at Cook County North Shore Hospital in Grand Marais.
Meanwhile, Wayne Hoffman drifted out of reach. Jan Hoffman said she and others on shore watched helplessly.
“My husband floated quite a way out,” she said. “I watched (him) for a couple hours.”
As harrowing initial moments stretched to hours, Jan Hoffman said, she was surrounded by resort staff, first responders and Good Samaritans, including a stranger who walked her dogs. She described finding comfort in the mother of the other victim.
“We were holding each other,” Jan Hoffman said. “There were so many people out there, but to be perfectly honest I only had one thing in my vision.”
An air, water and ground search continued into the night; crews covered five miles of shoreline, while out on the water a U.S. Coast Guard boat from Duluth searched for Wayne Hoffman as a Canadian Coast Guard C-130 dropped flares to illuminate the area.
Hoffman’s body was retrieved from the water shortly after 10 p.m. by the Coast Guard boat; crew members attempted CPR but Hoffman was pronounced dead by medical personnel on shore.
Sometime before he was pulled from the water, a Cook County sheriff’s deputy pulled Jan Hoffman away from shore.
“At that point in time everybody was sure he was no longer alive,” she said. “They brought me to a drier area. I can’t begin to tell you the kindness of the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. They were absolutely wonderful.”
About the victims
Wayne Hoffman was the director of technical services at Cardinal Glass Industries. He and his wife had been married 42 years after first meeting in Kansas City, Mo. They had been students together at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Mo. Hoffman was an inventor with several patents related to glass manufacturing and products.
“He loved mentoring people,” Jan Hoffman said.
The couple spent most of their Christmases on the North Shore, staying at Bluefin Bay or rental homes.
“It’s just a wonderfully relaxing place,” Jan Hoffman said. “We love the water and the feel of the north woods.”
Cardinal Glass used its corporate jet to fly Jan Hoffman and the couple’s dogs back home on Christmas Eve. She left her husband’s body behind in Grand Marais, where she said it would be cremated prior to a visitation later this week.
When the plane touched down at the Tri-County Regional Airport in Lone Rock, Wis., Jan Hoffman said, she was met by a crowd lining the runway: Cardinal Glass employees and other people from the small town of Spring Green.
“The whole town is devastated; Wayne is important to everybody,” said Jan Hoffman, a retired journalist.
“I’ve got a lot of support right now; his company has been very good to me. Everybody lined up to see me, because they all loved him and wanted to honor him.”
The Johnson family declined to talk about the incident when contacted by the News Tribune. An obituary for Alec Johnson that appeared in the Dunn County News noted that Johnson, who was single, earned a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011, and was an astrophysicist and mathematician by trade. He worked at a university in Belgium “on computer modeling to predict the timing and strength of the effect of solar flares on the northern lights, the power grid, computers and satellites,” the obituary said. He also worked with Ugandan farmers on sustainable farming and had a long history of helping the poor, the obituary reported.
“He donated much of his earnings to other people,” Rysdahl said.
— Reprinted with permission from Forum News Service and Duluth News Tribune.