- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 24, 2009

SACRAMENTO, Calif. | Noel Smith moved his wife and teenage daughter to one of California’s most far-flung regions five months ago, a landscape of rolling mountains, rivers and wide valleys near the Oregon border.

Despite its remoteness, the home was where most of his family decided to gather for Christmas. Last weekend, Mr. Smith and two of his brothers celebrated the get-together by going duck hunting amid dormant rice fields.

The reunion quickly turned tragic when the family dog, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, punched through ice on a lightly frozen lake. In moments, two of the brothers would be dead and the third recovering from hypothermia, leaving their family grieving just days before the Christmas holiday.

Three of the four Smith brothers — Noel, 39, Andrew, 34, and Nathan, 32 — were finishing a day of hunting near McArthur, 230 miles north of Sacramento. One of them skipped a rock onto the ice of Big Lake near the boat dock.

Noel Smith’s retriever ran after it but plunged through the ice into the 40-degree water. He went to rescue the dog but fell in. His brothers then lay down on the ice, forming a human chain, to rescue him but broke through themselves.

By the time rescue crews arrived just after dark Saturday, Noel and Nathan had drowned, while Andrew and the dog, which had subsequently pulled itself out of the water, were shivering on shore.

The fire engine, decorated for the annual Christmas parade in McArthur, still was draped in holiday lights when it arrived at the lake.

Firefighters borrowed a boat from another duck hunter to probe through the 16-foot-deep water for the bodies. McArthur Volunteer Fire Department Chief Past Oilar estimated that the men would have had perhaps 90 seconds in the frigid lake before they lost the ability to pull themselves out.

The brothers and their parents had gathered for the holidays at the home of Noel Smith, his wife, Lisa, and their 15-year-old daughter, Brooke. The family moved from the Sierra foothill town of Grass Valley to Burney, a town of 3,000 nestled between Lassen National Park and Mount Shasta, five months ago when Noel Smith went to work at a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. hydroelectric plant.

Nathan Smith, a former Marine, lived in the Sacramento suburb of Citrus Heights, where he worked as an electrician’s apprentice.

Andrew Smith was released from a local hospital after being treated for hypothermia.

“The brothers had sacrificed themselves, in a sense, trying to help one another,” said Pastor Ken Frazier of the Word of Life Assembly of God Church in Burney, where Noel Smith, his wife and daughter worshipped.

He met Tuesday with family members, who released a statement citing a biblical passage saying there is no greater love than sacrificing one’s life for a brother.

“More than anything we want the true spirit of Christmas to be recognized,” the statement said. “Jesus came to earth as a helpless babe to give His life for others, just as these heroic brothers did.”

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