By Louis Hoglund
A tragic, bizarre death near Pelican Lake has traumatized families, business owners, and emergency workers.
A distraught individual, who was reportedly working with a building firm at a Pelican Lake-Cormorant area business, took his own life. In front of several witnesses, who reportedly tried to prevent the tragedy, the man doused his car and himself with gasoline. He locked himself in the car and lit a fire.
Respectful of the incident’s emotional impact on the victim’s family, the Otter Tail Sheriff’s Department has been thoughtful about releasing information. The Press is not identifying the individual, other than noting that he had few connections or family ties to the greater Pelican area.
Pelican Rapids firefighters were among the emergency people called to the scene, about 4:30 p.m. Sept. 10. But by the time they arrived, all that remained was recovering the lifeless body of the victim.
“Firefighters see things the common person doesn’t,” commented Pelican Fire Chief Trevor Steeves. He and the entire department have been concerned about the impact of the apparent suicide on those who responded.
“You try to realize in a situation like this that there’s nothing we could have done to change the outcome no matter what,” said Steeves. “You just have to do your job professionally—and that’s what our guys did.”
The mental toll on emergency crews is multiplied among the surviving family members. “We’re shaken up by this…but I can’t imagine what the family is dealing with right now,” said one emergency official.
A deputy arrived within minutes, according to the Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Department’s initial report. The officer attempted to extinguish the fire, but was unable to—and the victim was pronounced dead at the scene.
Officers concluded that it was believed to be a suicide. There were witnesses throughout the incident, and they reportedly pled with the victim to stop.
The Otter Tail report states that a male “died after pouring gasoline over himself and then climbed into the trunk of a vehicle and closed it on himself and ignited a fire, causing the vehicle to be fully engulfed.”
Pelican firefighters assisted in recovering the body from the charred shell of the vehicle. They were on standby until about 6 p.m.
A Minnesota State Fire Marshall investigator was called to the scene. Few other details were revealed.
The incident occurred at a construction site, near U Motors on the north side of Pelican Lake. The boat and marine company is building a large storage structure to the west of the retail store.
The victim reportedly worked for a construction firm, and was not connected to the U Motors company.
Based on the call that came in to Pelican, firefighters were responding to a car fire, with a possible structure fire risk, said Steeves.
“We were initially concerned that it would be a big structure fire,” said Chief Steeves. The large building was framed, but mostly wide open. There was no threat to the structure or nearby equipment, as it turned out, said Steeves.
But firefighters became quickly aware of the human tragedy that confronted them.
“They did a good job and they did it as professionally as they could have, under the circumstances,” said Steeves.
Firefighters with emotional fallout from the tragedy were encouraged to “reach out, talk to any of us…Also, counseling services are always available to them.”
Rookies and newer firefighters on the department, as a protocol, are typically kept some distance from close-up contact with traumatic situations.
“Fire departments are really pushing the mental health aspects,” said Steeves. He emphasized that this is also important for firefighting veterans.
“You tend to think that the older guys can handle it, because they’ve seen tragedies before,” said Steeves. “But you have to look out for them, too, because these kind of stresses can build and build on them.”
Follow-up phone calls were made between Pelican firefighters, and Steeves sent out an email to the firefighters in an effort to keep communication channels open.