Jewell, ISU communities grieve following fatal rowing accident

Tragedy refuses to discriminate. Innocent communities cannot escape the ill effects of unexpected events, regardless of the size of such a community.

This week, people across the state are feeling the full brunt of a heartbreaking loss of two innocent young people: 20-year-old Yaakov Ben-David, an Iowa State University sophomore accounting major originally from Washington, D.C. and 19-year-old Derek Nanni, an ISU freshman chemistry major from Normal, Illinois.

Early Sunday morning, Hamilton County Dispatch received a 911 call stating that a boat had capsized in the middle of Little Wall Lake, which sits just to the south of the city of Jewell and just miles north of the Story County/Hamilton County border.

With a number of agencies responding to the urgent situation, three of the five individuals who had been aboard the watercraft were rescued from the frigid water and were treated at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames.

Unfortunately, there had been five people on the vessel, which meant two of them were still missing.

The five individuals were identified as members of Iowa State University’s Crew Club, an intercollegiate rowing team that is student-run. The group was practicing for future competition.

The Hamilton County Sherriff’s Office released a statement late Sunday evening indicating that the search and recovery operation had been suspended for the night, but that it would resume Monday morning. High winds on both Sunday and Monday made search efforts difficult.

ISU President Wendy Wintersteen also released a statement, which read, in part, as follows: “The Iowa State community is heartbroken to learn of this tragic accident at Little Wall Lake. At this time, we are focused on providing support to club members, their families and friends. We ask that everyone keep them in their thoughts during this very difficult time.”

By Monday morning, crews had recovered the bodies of the missing students. According to an ISU news release, families of the deceased were in the process of being notified.

On Tuesday afternoon, ISU released the names of both Ben-David and Nanni.

As the community around Ames and the hometowns of both victims mourn such a catastrophic loss, Little Wall Lake and Jewell have been left with a bunch of heartbroken citizens. “Everybody feels terrible about the situation,” Jewell Mayor Leo Reiter conceded. “I look at it like this: I’ve got three children that are between the ages of 21 and 25. These kids are all close to that age group being in college. I just think of the situation about how these kids were probably excited to come up here to practice, with it likely being one of their first practices. And then it turns into such a tragic event.”

Jewell, also known as Jewell Junction, is a small town on the far south side of Hamilton County. The city, originally platted in 1880, is home to just over 1,100 people, as of the 2019 census, and is approximately 4 square miles in size. (This does not include the members of the Little Wall Lake community, which is just outside Jewell city limits.)

Pictured is the town of Jewell, Iowa. Jewell lies just north of Little Wall Lake, where Sunday’s rowing accident occurred.

Unfortunately, this is not the first devastating situation Reiter’s tight-knit town has faced. “Jewell has had its fair share of tragedy and young people dying or getting killed,” he acknowledged. “Even just crossing the street. I’ve been here for 24 years. There have been a couple of instances where younger people from our community have died suddenly. One of my oldest sons…He had a classmate that got killed in a car accident when they were seniors. When I was in high school, I had the same thing happen.”

Jewell Police Chief David Turpen echoed similar expressions after Sunday’s tragedy. “It’s just another incident that we hate to have happen in our small community,” he said. “I haven’t heard a lot from people, but I know how we all feel. It’s just a really bad deal.”

As people slowly begin to recover emotionally, Reiter emphasized the importance of learning lessons from situations like these. “I know things are always measured with hindsight,” he noted. “But I would certainly hope that in the future, if they are going to practice, they have someone there that can assist in a rescue-type situation. My understanding is that it was just the kids, and there was no coach or supervision.  

“With it being so early in the year, none of the people on the south side of the lake had their boats in the water. The ice had just [melted] off. I would assume that this was probably one of the earlier times that they would be out there practicing. In another three weeks, there may have been boats on lifts there, and a person may have been able to jump in their boat and, hopefully, we could have avoided this situation.”

Nevertheless, Reiter also sees the value in young people spending time doing what they love, especially when it involves enjoying the outdoors. Still, he hopes this unfortunate event can lead others in making sound decisions when planning such an excursion, even those who are only going out for recreational purposes. “My two oldest [children] are boys, and they go kayaking all the time,” he explained. “They were just down at Saylorville [Lake] last weekend. This just made me think, ‘Maybe you guys shouldn’t be out there just yet. Maybe the water needs to warm up a little bit.’”

One sliver of goodness that has been evident this week is the exceptional teamwork amongst various groups of people. Thanks to a quick response and hard work from the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, Stratford Fire, Jewell EMS, Gilbert Fire & Rescue, Iowa State Patrol, Hamilton County Conservation, the Iowa State University Police Department, Hamilton County Emergency Management, Webster County Emergency Management, Story County Dive Team & UAS, Ellsworth Fire & Rescue, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, three of the five team members were able to survive the accident and were later released from the hospital.

“I’m proud of our local officials,” Reiter concluded. “Even some of our general public who were out there assisting in getting them out of the water.”

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