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Search crews recover body of 8-year-old from Minnesota River near Mankato

The Blue Earth County Sheriff's Office said a family was swimming in the Minnesota River Thursday night when two children began struggling in the water.

MANKATO, Minn. — Search crews have recovered the body of an 8-year-old girl who apparently drowned while swimming with her family in the Minnesota River Thursday. 

Blue Earth Sheriff's Captain Paul Barta says emergency personnel from the Mankato area responded to Sibley Park in Mankato just after 6 p.m. on reports of a possible drowning. Arriving first responders learned that a family with four children was swimming in the river near a sandbar when witnesses saw two kids struggling in the deep water. 

A female bystander was able to help an 11-year-old from the river but was not able to rescue 8-year-old Willow Rae Bense, who disappeared under the surface. 

The child's mother went in the water in an attempt to save her but was swept an estimated half-mile downstream by swift currents. 

Capt. Barta says a search team including 11 boats, multiple drones and the State Patrol Helicopter descended on the area and searched well past sunset. At that point the size of the team was scaled back, but boats returned early Friday morning and at 8:40 a.m. members of the Cleveland Fire and Rescue Department discovered Willow's body on a sandbar. 

"The loss of a child is always heartbreaking, an accidental situation like this, and it's nothing short of a tragedy. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the family of Willow," Capt. Barta said. 

The captain reminded reporters that Blue Earth County has more miles of river than any other county in Minnesota. While a great resource for outdoor recreation, rivers are also unpredictable with unpredictable currents, inconsistent depths and constantly shifting terrain. 

Barta said wearing life jackets while in or on the river is essential, especially for children. He shared that the family had come to Sibley Park just last week, and enjoyed themselves so much they returned Thursday. He says the children were initially wearing life vests last night, took them off while playing on a sandbar and then didn't put them back on. The kids were jumping off the sandbar into five to seven feet of water when the drowning occurred.  

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