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Tragedy puts focus on dangers of Sugar River
Drowning of 25-year-old brings continued focus on issues surrounding tubing in Albany area
In this file photo from a recent summer, friends enjoy a tubing trip on the Sugar River. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)

TOWN OF DECATUR — A Madison man drowned in the Sugar River just south of Albany at the end of a tubing trip July 18, the first river death in the area in at least 40 years.

Rescue crews found the body of Benjamin Noble M. Belzer, 25, at about 6 p.m. after searching for an hour and a half.

Belzer was Gov. Tony Evers' personal assistant, a position he'd held since Feb. 2019 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and working for Congressman Ron Kind of La Crosse.

Evers released a statement July 20 saying he was stunned by the loss of the "remarkably talented" Belzer, who "was always optimistic about how we could be part of making this world a better place."

"Months ago, as we asked folks to limit their interactions to a circle of five people or less during this pandemic, and someone asked who was among my five people — Ben was," Evers said, adding that Belzer has worked with “unmatched grace and humility" through the challenges of the pandemic.

Belzer was with a group of at least six people who had rented tubes from S&B Tubing, said Green County Chief Deputy Tom Moczynski. The group was getting ready to get out of the river at S&B's access road to exit, just south of the Minihaha Campground.

"He exited his tube and went underwater and just did not resurface," said Moczynski, who was on scene as an administrator for the sheriff's office. Emergency responders were called at about 3:20 p.m.

Belzer's body was found about 300 to 400 yards down river.

Moczynski said the factors that led to the drowning are still under investigation. A July 20 autopsy of Belzer's body ruled the death an accidental drowning. Additional testing is underway.

The sheriff's office asked S&B not to put any more tubers on the river that afternoon and evening, Moczynski said. The company complied.

Later that night S&B posted to its Facebook page, "It is with extremely heavy hearts we confirm that a tragedy occurred on the river today. Out of respect for everyone involved in this incident, we will be closed tomorrow Sunday, July 19."

Kari Briggs, director of Albany EMS, said the muddy water and downed trees, branches and debris made for a difficult search.

"Some of us were on land looking through binoculars," she said.

At the point Belzer went down, the river was at least six feet deep, she said.

Five boats arrived at the river to assist with the search — one from the Brodhead Fire Department, two from the Janesville Fire Department and one from the Department of Natural Resources, plus a personal boat belonging to a member of the Brodhead Fire Department. Firefighters from Janesville also brought along a team of divers.

"I am so proud of my crew. They really stepped it up on Saturday," Briggs said.

Challenges on the river

The drowning comes at a challenging time and is bringing a continued focus on issues around people tubing on the Sugar River. This summer has seen an early influx of visitors descending on the Albany area to tube, either through S&B or Sweet Minihaha Campground, or on their own with their own tubes.

A week earlier, S&B shut down for a day after an outbreak of COVID-19 was reported at the business. S&B reopened with new safety guidelines, including requirements for customers to physically distance.

The brief shutdown came after Green County Public Health received complaints of crowding on and off the river. The crowding is a concern for spreading COVID-19, but it's also a concern for the problems that come with any large mass of people, many of whom are drinking: drunk driving, underage drinking, littering, trespassing, injuries and accidents.

On the same day of Belzer's drowning, Albany EMS responded to five other calls.

One was for a young woman out tubing who jumped, for fun, off the Decatur Albany Bridge into the river and injured her foot because the water wasn't deep enough, Briggs said.

Another was for a tuber so intoxicated he had to be taken to Monroe Clinic.

At the same time, the river is higher than usual due to recent rains, making the current stronger and more dangerous. The Albany Fire Department executed a difficult rescue of a stranded teenager at the Albany dam on July 12.

Jessica Flint, a 38-year-old Sauk City resident, is one recent tuber who needed rescuing from the strong currents. She came to Albany with her 10-year-old and 14-year-old on July 4 hoping for a peaceful and safe outing for the family. It was their first time out on the river.

But soon, she said, she realized the river was not a family attraction but a party scene with tubers collecting in groups of up to 100, smoking blunts, passing around bags of frozen wine, stripping naked and jumping off trees.

The river itself was also "deceiving," Flint said. At first, the water was so calm she remembers asking her daughter, "Are we moving?" After a while, however, she said the strong current pulled them right into low-hanging branches and fallen trees.

When she tried to get out — at what turned out to be the wrong spot — she and her children got stuck in a deep section of water with slippery, sharp rocks leading up to the shore. A man at Camp Minihaha noticed they were struggling and threw a rope out to Flint.

With their rescuer's help, Flint managed to pull all three tubes and her son, who was "holding on for dear life," to shore. She said their rented tubes from S&B had life jackets but the jackets were connected to the tubes.

"It took the man a good 10 minutes to get us back to land, and I was exhausted, my legs were shaking and my feet were all beat up," Flint said, adding that she's been swimming her whole life but "the conditions were crazy."

"You have no control," she said.

What's next for the Sugar River?

For Albany EMS going forward, Briggs said she's looking at improving the chain of command with a "point person" during busy weekends. The agency has a roster of 20, including drivers.

This past weekend, "there was just so much going on," Briggs said. A person who is a single point of contact for dispatch could shave vital seconds off response times to calls.

"I don't know if that will help dispatch or not, but that's what we're going to do internally if we're going to start having multiple calls, just to get more organized (and) know where everybody is," she said.

The day after Belzer's drowning, the Albany Fire Department posted a message of condolence to his family and friends and thanked all the involved agencies and the staff at S&B and Camp Minihaha "for the help in making our rescue attempts as smooth as possible."

They also offered words of caution and advice.

"Everyone needs to take a step back and realize that we are still in a pandemic that is greatly affecting this country. Social distancing is the best form of preventing the spread of the virus. Please, be responsible with alcohol consumption. Drink at least one bottle of water for every alcoholic beverage, especially during the 90+ degree days. Watch the weather and check water levels before deciding to get into the water," the post said.

"If you do want to go on the river with higher than normal water levels and plan on drinking in excess, please take preventative measures and put a life jacket on."

Robert Ritter, Albany police chief, said Belzer's drowning is the first fatality in this stretch of the river that the village clerk can remember since the late 1970s.

Going forward, Ritter said he's hoping to rely on traffic grants to increase patrolling in the village. In addition to the chief, the Albany Police Department has two full-time officers and four part-time officers.

"We're really working our hardest to make sure we have enough officers when people are out tubing," he said. But, he noted, "resources are limited."