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A Boone County firefighter died during a water rescue in north Columbia on Monday morning.

Boone County Fire Protection District Assistant Fire Chief Matthew Tobben, 42, died while assisting Columbia Fire Department personnel with a water rescue, Boone County Fire Protection District Chief Scott Olsen said.

CFD first responded to the 911 call at Range Line Street and Bear Creek around 4:30 a.m. and called for mutual aid from Boone County Fire Department, officials said during a news conference.

Olsen said Tobben, a CFD firefighter and two people being rescued were on a Boone County water rescue boat when the boat lost power and capsized, ejecting the people from the boat.

The other three people were rescued, but Tobben never reappeared.

A Missouri State Highway Patrol drowning report said the boat the four people were traveling in – a 2008 Zodiac FC420 – “took on water” after the engine failed. The water caused all four people to be thrown from the boat, the report said. The report said the boat capsized at 4:17 a.m.

The report describes Tobben as the driver of the boat and lists three passengers:

  • Columbia firefighter Derek Abbott, 36, of Fulton
  • Paige Pace, 29, of Columbia
  • Charlie Resonno, 38, of Columbia

Abbott had no injuries, while Pace and Resonno each suffered minor injuries, the report said. All three were released at the scene, according to the report.

Blomenkamp said Tobben tried to grab a tow rope that was thrown to him. He said Tobben’s life jacket and helmet were found floating downstream, but it is not known whether Tobben took them off himself or pushed them away from the water.

However, Blomenkamp said it was “not unusual for lifeguards to remove their life jackets when necessary.” Blomenkamp stressed, however, that we may never know whether the jacket was removed intentionally.

An ABC 17 News reporter on the scene saw a white van leave the area around 10:30 a.m. and head south on the Rangeline with a large police escort. Blomenkamp confirmed it was Tobben, who was taken to the coroner’s office.

The accident site was cleared around 11 a.m. after a truck with a trailer pulled out a rescue boat.

Nearly 20 vehicles from the Boone County Fire Department, Boone County Sheriff’s Department, Columbia Police Department, Columbia Fire Department and Missouri State Highway Patrol responded to the scene.

Blomenkamp said the cause of the power outage on the boat is being investigated by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

In a press conference on Monday, he said that no one was better suited to these water rescues than Tobben.

“He taught whitewater boat operations,” Blomenkamp said. “He’s the one who taught people what he did this morning, and there’s no one more qualified and responsible to do the job that was done this morning.”

Blomenkamp said Tobben only took up his position as the department’s training manager on May 1.

Previously, Tobben spent 19 years with the Union, Missouri Fire Department and also served 12 years with Missouri Task Force 1.

“He would do anything for you,” said Blomenkamp. “You just had to ask him and he was always ready to help. He never turned down an opportunity to do this mission, to carry out this rescue, to help out.”

Tobben leaves behind a wife and two children, Blomenkamp said.

MSHP report: Boone County deputy fire chief drowned after ‘waterlogged’ boat capsized
Matt Tobben, Boone County Assistant Fire Chief. (Photo courtesy of Boone County Fire Protection District)

A man who lives near Bear Creek, Demetrios Calhoun, said the flooding along Bear Creek on Monday morning was the most severe he had ever experienced.

“There was nothing we could do because the water was rushing so high,” Calhoun said. “I’ve never seen the water rushing so high in six years here.”

Blomenkamp said Tobben is the second line-of-duty death for the Boone County Fire Protection District since the death of Assistant Chief Bryant Gladney in 2021.

The Columbia Fire Department wrote on its Facebook page that it was called to several water rescues at 3:45 a.m. Monday.

“The Columbia Fire Department will be eternally grateful to Assistant Chief Tobben for his courage and dedication to the community. We ask that you please keep his family in mind and pray for them during this extremely difficult time,” the post said.

There have been several water rescues in the past week, including Wednesday in Boone County on Gillespie Bridge Road, where a woman died after a vehicle was swept away by floodwaters. Iveta Thayer, 81, of Columbia was found dead Friday morning.

Blomenkamp said Tobben rescued the driver of the vehicle that was washed away on Gillespie Bridge Road on Wednesday.

Larry Jennings, president of the Missouri Firefighters Association, said a water rescue is difficult regardless of a person’s training experience. Jennings said one of the biggest challenges for rescuers is the flow of water from rain, which washes debris into the water that is invisible.

“That’s pretty dangerous in and of itself because now the thing is pushing against you along with the current,” Jennings said. “But then navigating a boat in debris-filled waters becomes very problematic because you’re running into these things you can’t see.”

Jennings said the training for water rescue is intense and different from the training for a boating license in Missouri. He said the training consists of boating courses and specialized training on a river.

Jennings also pointed to a course at the University of Missouri that focuses on training as a “water rescuer” and gives participants experience in rescuing people from the water.

During the incident on Monday morning, the boat Tobben lost power. Jennings said this was problematic because of the current.

“It’s one of those problems when you don’t have power … it’s the same for every boater on any body of water: When the power goes out, you’re exposed to the current and that’s a lot harder to control,” Jennings said.

It has rained continuously in Mid-Missouri since Wednesday, and more rain is expected on Tuesday.

Blomenkamp said the department is aware of the possibility of additional rescues in the coming days. He said despite Monday’s tragic loss, the department remains focused on saving lives.

“One rescuer, one civilian in the last six or five days, that never makes it easy,” Blomenkamp said. “But we are prepared and we are working on it. If it rains again tomorrow (Tuesday), we could carry out rescue operations like this again tomorrow and hopefully with a much better result.”

The Missouri Fire Service Funeral Assistance Team posted on its Facebook page Monday evening that a small memorial service for Tobben would be held from Columbia to Union on Tuesday.

The post states that the procession will leave Columbia at 10:15 a.m.

“The estimated departure time from Columbia, Missouri is 10:15 a.m. The funeral procession will travel via Interstate 70 to Highway 47 toward Union. The procession will turn onto Independence Drive and then Church Street to the Oltmann Funeral Home,” the post said. “Public safety officials are asked to be present on overpasses and along the funeral procession route and to assemble in a safe location. U.S. flags are welcome, however those with large flags should be mindful of weather conditions.”