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Swept away

Family tries to cope after receiving tragic news

When Katy Zurneiden got up the morning of July 1, it was a day like every other day. Little did she know it would change and not for the good.

Her husband, Joe, had already left for work to the glass business the two of them owned, and she hasn’t seen him since. She said they believe he somehow fell into the Mississippi River and drowned.

“I usually wake up early with him and then sometimes I’ll go back to bed and get up with the girls, but that morning he left, and I didn’t get a chance to talk to him.”

She said Joe left at about six that morning. She spoke to him around 8:30 a.m., and it was pretty normal; they chatted about the day. “He was telling me he’d ordered some supplies and was waiting to go pick them up.”

By about 11 that morning he hadn’t called back, which was unusual, especially since she’d asked him to let her know where he would be around lunchtime, and she’d pack a lunch and meet him wherever he was at.

“I hadn’t heard from him, which was odd. I tried calling him and calling him and couldn’t get hold of him, and when I didn’t hear from him by 6 p.m., I was really worried,” said Katy.

Katy said she tried to distract her worried feelings by bringing the girls to the children’s museum, thinking to herself that his phone was probably broken or he was very busy and couldn’t call. “That evening when I got home and started making dinner, it hit me that something was terribly wrong, because this wasn’t like him, so I called the police department.” They said they’d send an officer over. Katyasked that they wait until the girls were in bed, which they did. She filed a missing person’s report with the officers, and that’s when Joe’s sister came over along with his mother and Katy’s friend Sally.

“We started driving and searching. It’s nothing like I ever imagined would be happening in my life, and it’s really sad because we were about to celebrate our 11th wedding anniversary on July 26. We were really happy. Things were really good; our business was doing well, and the kids were getting along.”

She said the girls were at that age where they could play with one another, so Joe and she were able to have their relationship again. “When you have young children, that sense of your own relationship identity gets a little muddled; you’re constantly making snacks and taking care of kids. We were at that point where we were doing things we enjoyed and really having fun together.”

Joe was the driving force of their business, she said. He was the lead estimator and installer. They just had one employee plus herself and Joe. “I did the books and sent out invoices and did some of the sales.”

The day Joe went missing, their employee was at the shop working, getting ready for the big jobs they had going. He spoke on the phone to Joe that day but didn’t see him.

Numerous searches have been conducted for Joe. The day he went missing there was a failed water rescue downstream about two miles from the park where Joe’s uncle found his van and smashed cell-phone.

“We think he may have fallen into the Mississippi River. It was very fast, very high and very dangerous at that time. The individual they tried to rescue was a white male between the age of 35 and 45. “They don’t know who it was, but they said this man was trying to get out of the river, and right at the Hennepin Avenue Bridge this man went under, and they never saw him again.”

Joe liked to go to parks, drink his coffee, answer emails and skip stones or even look for rocks for the girls, Katy said, so it wasn’t a surprise that they found his van in a park close by the river. She knew he liked going to parks. He didn’t want to conduct his work in the van or sit in the office all the time; he liked to sit in a park and be in nature. “It looked like a place he would go to clear his mind, answer some emails, and take some phone calls.”

Many days when they were very busy, he’d leave for work early to set up for the day and pick up supplies for jobs. “He had called in an order for supplies when I talked to him at 8:23 in the morning. He was just waiting to pick up some supplies for a job.” Little did she know that was going to be the last time she talked to him. “We haven’t heard from him or seen him since.”

Katy said the morning Joe went missing, as soon as she felt something was wrong, she went to the business. “My good friend Sally came over to sit at the house with our kids, and Joe’s sister and his mother came over to my house because they knew something was wrong. It wasn’t like Joe to disappear and not show up.” He loves to be at home, she said, and hadn’t missed dinner in 13 years without her knowing what was going on, if he had to work late or something. “He always communicated everything.”

They went to the business, she said, but didn’t find anything. Everything was normal. “We actually drove around the city looking for his vehicle. It felt like we were aimlessly searching.”

The next day Joe’s uncle started searching for him. Katy said he told her the police had a lot on their plate, and he didn’t feel they would be doing enough to find Joe.  “Sure enough, Bruce (Joe’s uncle) found Joe’s van and found where we think he may have fallen in……the river in this part had terraces and woods that went right down to the shoreline. It was so high that if anyone were to slip, he would just get whisked away.”

It may be kind of shallow at the shoreline, she said, but then the river drops off to where it’s 12-13 feet deep. “The river was so high. I can speculate what happened, but I wasn’t there so I don’t know, but I know the river was very dangerous at that time, and it still is. The Mississippi is a dangerous river. It’s fast, and it’s unpredictable.”

Bruce also found Joe’s phone in the park smashed up, she said, and that seemed kind of strange. The Minneapolis Police Department is holding Joe’s van in the homicide unit just in case there are any indications of foul play. None of this is typical, Katy said, but they’re covering their bases.

Katy said they’ve conducted foot searches with MN United, a nonprofit group that helps volunteers conduct their own searches. “On July 8 we had a large search that was done by volunteers. I think about 150 people showed up, people Joe had worked with, people that were friends from our community at church, at school and family members.” It was pretty inspiring, she said, there were so many people out there that wanted to help.

They also had water searches with Bruce’s Legacy, a nonprofit group out of Black River Falls, Wis. They went out with a boat and used sonar on the bottom of the river. That was unsuccessful as well. “There are some amazing people out there that have been helping us. It’s been hard. We’ve got two little girls who are 3 and 6, and Joe was an amazing dad. He was fun and funny and was amazing with the girls – he was a fun dad and my best friend so it’s been quite an adjustment to get used to not being able to call him.” Katy said she’d call him 30 times a day. “We worked together. You own your own business, and I was his assistant. We talked to each other all day. That morning when I didn’t hear from him and our employee didn’t hear from him, we figured something terrible had happened.” They’re doing all the searching on their own, she said. Hennepin County has their sheriff’s patrol and Bruce’s Legacy has come out a couple of times to do sonar searching on the river. “The police do have a lot on their plate so I can’t really get angry about it. There’s only so much they can do. But all the searches now have been conducted by volunteers and friends.”

Katy said she went out searching with a group one day and was so focused on searching she didn’t really think about what she was searching for. “I was tying myself off on trees on the bank of the river. I had a big pole and was searching in the river for anything that would be a sign. We got up to St. Anthony Main in Minneapolis, and I was walking through the park, and I saw one of  the signs that we originally put up around the city, a picture of my husband, missing person, and it hit me just what I was searching for, and I just realized I couldn’t do it.”

Katy went on to explain Bruce’s Legacy. The founder of Bruce’s Legacy named the nonprofit after his brother, who drowned, she said. “They use quite sophisticated equipment. It’s a side sonar scan. It looks like a little torpedo that goes along the bottom of a river or lake, and it sends out sonar and shoots an image on a computer screen.” She said they’ve been doing this for quite some time so they know what to look for, and unfortunately, they didn’t find Joe.

She said Bruce’s Legacy may search some more. She’s been in contact with them, and they’ve given them lots of tips on searching by foot and searching with dogs. “We had a group of cadaver dogs searching as well, but in all honesty, if he is in the river it’s like searching in a giant moving haystack. It’s like finding a needle in a giant moving haystack because it’s constantly changing. And you don’t realize how big the Mississippi River is until you’re actually searching and then its ‘Holy cow, this is a big river.’ This is kind of overwhelming.”

She said the Bruce’s Legacy people said there are parts in the river where the current is so strong. “It’s just a dangerous river. They don’t call it the Mighty Mississippi for nothing.”

If Joe fell in the river, he could be anywhere, she said.

One day Katy did something she admitted probably wasn’t the best idea she’d ever had. “I had the day free without the children, and I drove to Hastings and started walking the river bank. I started crying because I felt like this is really overwhelming to even fathom that he might be in the river.” She added, “I have days I don’t know how I’m doing it.”

Katy said this has had quite the impact on her life, her family and the business, but their children are keeping her very busy. “They keep me in the present moment, and they’re so resilient. They miss their dad, and I can tell they miss their dad. They’re so engaged with the present moment, and I keep reminding myself that no matter what happens they’re my focus because they’re here, and they need me.”

Katy said she really tries to keep it together. Katy’s daughter goes to a Catholic school, the St. Helena Catholic Church in south Minneapolis. “That community has been so amazing for us. It’s important to have faith when things like this happen because there’s only so much you can do and only so much you can feel, and at a certain point, you have put your will and the will of what’s going to be into God’s hands – that’s been a comfort.”

When the kids ask “Where’s daddy?” Katy said she’s pretty honest with them. “I don’t hide my feelings about it. I tell them that I miss daddy and remind them that ‘Wherever daddy is he loves you and would never want anything bad to happen’ and just keep reassuring them they’re loved.” There aren’t a whole lot of answers she can give them, and without answers, they can’t have a memorial service or anything like that because everything is still so unanswered.

“I hope someday we’ll have some answers. It’s hard not having any idea what happened. You hear stories about maybe he’s being held captive somewhere, I’m really hopeful that maybe he’ll be able to come back to us.”

At this point in time she plans to dissolve the business, and if she does that, she’ll have to find a job. But for now, she’s trying to wrap up all the loose ends of their business.

“I couldn’t do the job. I could help people choose what they want to put in their house, but I couldn’t install any of it. Joe would fabricate and put things together. He was the lead installer, and he was meticulous. And in my mind he was kind of a genius when it came to matters of construction. He was really good at what he did.”

Katy said people are telling her how strong she is going through this. “These little girls are keeping me strong and keeping me looking at the future and not focusing on something that I can’t control. The only thing I can control is what I’m going to do at that moment, and if I stay positive and stay loving and don’t get bitter, don’t get angry, it’s going to make life a whole lot easier on everyone.”

She said a lot of people in their community have been helping her out. There was a big benefit put on for them. “People really do amazing things when there’s a tragedy. If you feel you’re surrounded by love and light and positive energy and people are praying for us, that gives you comfort.”

Every day she keeps hoping Joe will come back home. “People have been so kind, and it’s really kind of made me pause. I always thought I was kind to people but even a simple smile to a stranger can kind of brighten someone’s day.”

Katy’s mom, Barb Kavanagh, lives in Willmar and goes to Minneapolis often to help out with whatever is needed. “She’s great. She’s an amazing mom, and I’m really lucky to have such great support.

Katy said she isn’t giving up. She’s going to keep hoping her husband will be able to come home to her and the girls.

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