Volunteer searchers stayed until the bitter end
by Sherill Summer
Leader staff writer
DANBURY - The house at the end of Third Avenue S. was built to house the caretakers of the two hydro-electric dams in Danbury. It is surrounded by water, situated on a man-made island that was created when the Yellow River was diverted towards the two dams.
It was also the house three-year-old Renna Mae Williams called home. Tragically, the young girl was found dead in the waters surrounding her home by the Danbury Fire and Rescue dive team at about 4:50 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 15, nearly 24 hours after she was reported missing.
There are few details yet made public about the about the overnight search for the three-foot, eight-inch, blond-haired girl, but by morning the word was out that she was missing and volunteers gathered at the Danbury ball field. The DNR organized teams of volunteers to search the dense blow down near her home, shoulder to shoulder. Some volunteers brought dogs to assist the search. Danbury's own Pardun's Canoe Rental and the St. Croix Casino - Danbury transported search teams in shuttle buses.
The St. Croix Tribe's casino also provided shelter tents, chairs and food for volunteers. Also providing food was the Log Cabin Store. Several North Memorial ambulances were stationed at the ball field. Ambulance crews tended the injuries as they arose. Most injuries were minor, but one Minneapolis teenager was stung several times by bees and one man was transported to the hospital with chest pains.
Search volunteers unanimously described woods as tough to walk through and it seemed impossible to search every downed tree and upended root mass, but volunteers were driven to try anyway.
Meanwhile, the search continued along the Yellow River. The road to the house Williams lived in went past the ball field, but it was blocked off by police. The lack of official word from the search along the river only added to the frustration felt by some volunteers.
By late afternoon Wednesday there were nearly 500 volunteers gathered to help, many hoping to join the search despite the threat of thunderstorms and approaching dusk. Many had rushed from their jobs to join the search, but no search teams were sent out after 4:30 p.m.
A little after 6 p.m. Pardun's Canoe shuttle buses left the ball field, signaling that the search was over, for at least the night.
Without official word, it was unclear why the search was called off, but already there were rumors circulating in the crowd that the girl's body was found in the river, rumors that proved to be accurate.
After it was apparent that the search was called off, many at the ball field left. Others remained to watch various public safety vehicles leave the scene. At about 6:20 p.m. the chairs provided by the casino were loaded up, making the wait more uncomfortable, but many still waited for some sort of official word from authorities.
Burnett County Sheriff Dean Roland held an emotional press conference at 6:40 p.m. for all at the ball field, both media covering the story and volunteers. He announced that the body of Renna Mae Williams was found about 25 yards from the house in two-and-a-half to three feet of water, in the waters where the family boat was launched. The area where the girl was found is often referred to as the channel.
Roland acknowledged that the girl had a history of wandering and that the investigation still continues as the sheriff's department will gather more information about the incident in coming days. Roland mentioned that the channel would be drained to help gather information, something Roland estimated would take half a day. An autopsy would be conducted to determine the cause of death.
Roland was asked about the FBI's presence at the scene, and he explained that it was standard procedure for them to be at all missing children cases. He also stated that other agencies were helping with the investigation and that the investigation would include door-to-door interviews with residents to find out all they can.
Roland also stated that the sheriff's department would like to know more about a vehicle with Missouri plates that was seen camping in the area without proper camping gear, although the sheriff was quick to note that nothing yet linked the vehicles to the three-year-old girl.
He said all the family had been notified that the body was found and that family members were with grief counselors.
After the press conference, the mother of the missing child, Jenna Danish, gave her own statement where she thanked everyone for their offers of support and their help in trying to find her daughter.
Later, some who were at the scene when the body was found wanted to correct information given by Sheriff Roland at the press conference, noting that the location of Renna when she was found was in four to six feet of water, tangled in weeds and several feet off shore, not in two or three feet of water as noted by the sheriff.
A Parduns Canoe Rental shuttle bus unload the last search team of the day. Many volunteers had spend most of the day searching for a three-year-old missing child, but as the afternoon wore on, they were joined by many more until upward of 500 were gathered at the ball field in Danbury. - Photos by Sherill Summer