Family of missing kayaker struggle with uncertainty

NEW ULM – The family of missing kayaker Stephen Fritze is publicly declaring their appreciation for the efforts of rescue personnel to locate their family member. The family is also privately struggling with the pain and uncertainty that comes with not knowing Fritze’s fate.

Fritze, a sixth grade teacher at St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Watertown, S.D., has been missing on the Minnesota River since June 22. At the time, he was kayaking with two friends while visiting family in New Ulm when they got caught up in bushes just past Courtland and the kayaks overturned. Stephen’s kayak overturned and was washed down river, while the other two people were able to make it shore.

A coalition of emergency response and government organizations have been working together over the last week to search the river every day for Fritze. They have sent out up to 50 personnel at one time to scour the river, but have since started running smaller shifts to keep up the effort. As of Saturday, there has been no new developments in the search.

The searching entities are the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, New Ulm Fire and Rescue, Courtland Fire Department and the Nicollet, Brown, Blue Earth and Le Sueur County Sheriff’s departments.

So far, the search has been complicated by the rapidly raising water of the Minnesota River. The water level for the river at Mankato has risen from 10 feet on the night Fritze went missing to 18.3 feet on early Friday. The river level has since began to drop, with 17.5 feet recorded on Saturday, but the water has remained too murky to deploy divers in the search.

A family thankful,

but hurting

Fritze’s father Paul, who lives in New Ulm, said the family has been overwhelmed by how many people from around the communities in New Ulm and Watertown have shown their support. He also emphasized how surprised and grateful they have been that people have gone the extra mile to work with the family, such as officials giving daily updates on the search and the family’s pastors visiting with them daily,

Elisabeth Gnewuch, sister of Stephen Fritze, said the family is speaking with the media because they are looking for a public way to show how much they appreciate the work of the search teams.

“We can’t imagine the long hours they’re putting in. We really wish we could be out there helping too,” said Elisabeth. “They’ve taken so much time away from their own families to help our family. We would love to personally thank each and every one them, and give them a hug.”

Mark Gnewuch, brother-in-law to Stephen, said the scale of how many people are helping the family is one of the most amazing things he has ever witnessed. He said the family has not had to cook meal since Sunday.

Despite their appreciation of the help they received, the family said they have been struggling to deal with the loss of Stephen. They said that the fact that the search is still ongoing has made it more painful.

“It’s a shock to have your son one minute and then you don’t have your son, that he’s gone,” said Paul.

The family said they believe at this point that Stephen drowned. They said they have found comfort in the fact he lead a religious life and that they believe he is now in heaven.

The family is planning a memorial service in Watertown at St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on July 3 at 11 a.m. The service will be open to those who want to attend or contact the family.

Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at

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