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Hunting Accident File > Safe Hunting?: > 2004

NEB. MAN DIES TRYING TO SAVE HUNTING BUDDY

Coloradoan falls through ice on lake but survives

By Kirk Mitchell

Denver Post Staff Writer

A Nebraska man fell through the ice and died trying to rescue a Colorado hunting buddy during a New Year's Day goose-hunting trip.

Art Stapleton, 54, of Aurora was walking across the ice on Enders Lake in southwestern Nebraska to retrieve a goose when he broke through the ice. His friend, Bill DeHart, 55, of nearby Wauneta had a heart attack during the rescue, DeHart's family members said Saturday.

The grandsons of the two men flagged down a passer-by who tossed Stapleton a wood chisel that he used to pull himself onto the ice and to safety, Stapleton said in a phone interview Saturday from his Aurora home.

"There were some angels there," he said. "It could have been a lot worse."

Stapleton said he loved his friend, and it breaks his heart that DeHart died trying to save his life.

"He is a hero in my mind," he said. "I wish he wouldn't have come out there."

Stapleton's grandsons, Jonathan Stapleton, 14, and Sage Stapleton, 9, risked their lives by walking out onto the ice to save Stapleton. They also fell through the ice, said 11-year-old Seth DeHart, Bill DeHart's grandson, who called 911.

The two men took their grandsons goose hunting New Year's morning. They had placed three decoys by the edge of the water and were waiting behind a camouflaged hunting net

At about 10 a.m., Stapleton shot a goose, which landed on the ice. Seth DeHart walked out onto the ice to get the bird, he said.

"The boys were the hunting dogs; they were the retrievers," said Traci DeHart, one of DeHart's four children.

She said her father had talked about getting hunting dogs but hadn't yet done so.

"I walked out about 6 feet and turned. I got scared," Seth DeHart said. "You could see the bottom of the lake (through the ice)."

Stapleton then walked out onto the ice, but the bird, which was still alive, moved farther out from him, Stapleton said. He tried to reach it with his rifle and crashed through, he said.

Stapleton said the ice broke several times when he pulled himself up to his chest.

Stapleton's grandsons tried to go out to him, but when the 9-year-old fell through the ice, Jonathan helped him out of the water, Stapleton said.

"I'm so proud of them," he said. "They kept their heads. Jonathan was yelling at me not to give up. I didn't want to drown in front of my grandkids."

The boys called for help on a cellphone and yelled for assistance while DeHart crawled out onto the ice toward his friend. He stretched out while lying on the ice and just as their hands touched, DeHart plunged through the ice, Stapleton said.

They were swimming next to each other and talking strategy one minute, and then DeHart disappeared into the water, Stapleton said.

Family members say DeHart had a heart attack.

Two other hunters who heard the boys screaming came to help, Stapleton said.

While one went for a boat, the other tossed the chisel about 40 yards. It landed within Stapleton's reach.

"It was amazing how close it landed," Stapleton said. "Another five minutes and I would have been gone."

He said he was so weak he could barely hang on to the ice.

DeHart's body was recovered by divers about five hours later, Stapleton said.

Stapleton and DeHart met five years ago when DeHart, a plumber and electrician, worked on Stapleton's cabin in southwestern Nebraska, Stapleton said. They became close friends and had gone on a few dozen hunting and camping trips together, he said.

Seth DeHart said his grandfather was a hero.

"We all had a part in saving lives that day," he said. "My grandpa died doing the thing he loves to do best."

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