CHETEK, Wis. (WCCO) — A Wisconsin town devastated by a tornado just last week is trying to cope with another tragedy.
Owen Knutson, a 17-year-old junior at Chetek Weyerhaeuser High School, died Wednesday night when the single engine Piper plane he was piloting crashed into the Red Cedar River.
Hunter Gillet, an 18-year-old senior at nearby Cameron High school, survived the crash but was airlifted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where he underwent surgery on Thursday and is in serious condition.
The community is coping just a week after a deadly tornado tore through town. To say it’s difficult is an understatement. The sheriff and first responders were at a church service honoring first responders and praying for the victims of last week’s deadly tornado, and then they go to the call about the crash.
Just a few weeks ago, the Barron County Sheriff took 17-year-old Owen Knutson and his grandpa on a ride along.
“Usually I am not at a loss for words at a press conference but this one hurts,” Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said.
Grief Counselors were at Chetek Weyerhaeuser High School, where Knutson was a popular junior. Owen featured the yellow Piper plane, believed to be the plane that crashed, on his Facebook page. The plane is owned by his family.
The sheriff said Knutson had his pilot’s license and had taken off from the family airstrip at their home south of Chetek. It’s not clear what caused the plane to crash in the Red Cedar River. Stiff currents and high water made the rescue more dangerous.
“The tornado was bad and everything that happened, but this hits home and it’s taken its toll on our first responders,” Fitzgerald said.
There was also shock in the nearby town of Cameron, where Hunter Gillet, the quarterback of the football team, was supposed to run in the state track sectional on Thursday. His friend Ty Bernard will take his place.
“It hurts inside. The whole school is devastated by it,” Bernard said.
Hunter’s mother posted on her Facebook, detailing his extensive injuries. They include fractured vertebrae, a broken ankle and multiple facial fractures. The high school released a statement, saying Hunter underwent the first of what are expected to be multiple surgeries on Thursday.
“Hunter is a very strong kid and I know he can pull through this,” Bernard said.
The tragedy has echoed through the still devastated, tornado-stricken area, where the clean-up continues. Elmer and Marilyn Lines wondered the same thing everyone is: why Chetek?
“Tragic. It’s hard to believe when we heard another tragedy in Chetek,” Marilyn Lines said.
The sheriff says it’s not clear what cause the plane to crash. Both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the results of those investigations, which could take as long as a year.
Adding to the sadness in the area is that this weekend was supposed to be a source of joy. Graduation for both schools is this weekend.