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20 years after tragedy, Duncan marks date with 'thank you' to Council Bluffs Fire Department
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20 years after tragedy, Duncan marks date with 'thank you' to Council Bluffs Fire Department

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Chris Duncan wanted to say thank you.

Twenty years ago, Chris’s wife, Karen Duncan, drove their black 1981 Chevrolet pickup truck into the Missouri River at Narrow’s River Park off North 25th Street, killing herself and their three children -- Zachery, 8, and twins Dylan and Derek, 4.

Reflecting on the anniversary of the July 10, 2000, tragedy, Chris dropped off pulled barbecue pork, macaroni salad and chips to the crew at the Council Bluffs Fire Department headquarters station on Fourth Street. He said he wanted to let the department know how much he’s thankful for them, and he hasn’t forgotten what they did that day.

“I had to do this to let you know I appreciate what you do,” Chris told firefighters in the dining area.

“It does my heart good to give back to the fire department,” he said. “They did a lot of things that day that people shouldn’t have to experience in their life. I just wanted to show some gratitude for all they’ve done for me.”

Shortly before 5 p.m. on July 10, 2000, Karen, 33, drove the pickup off a 25-foot riverbank into the Missouri River with the couple’s three children in the vehicle. At the time, Sgt. Ray Mabbitt told the Nonpareil members of the Duncan family heard the description of the truck in a broadcast and immediately went to the scene, telling authorities who they believed the victims were.

From Nonpareil reports at the time, a number of local agencies raced to the scene, including divers from the Lewis Township, Red Oak, Ralston, Nebraska, and Clarinda fire departments. They spent hours in the water under zero-visibility conditions with strong currents looking for the truck before finding it, with Karen and Zachary and Dylan inside, around 3 a.m. on July 11. Later that morning, search and rescue personnel recovered Derek's body near Ameristar Casino.

“It was a long night. A somber night,” said Alex Ford, now the Council Bluffs fire marshal and a medic at the time.

Ford recalled a former Navy diver with the Red Oak Fire Department played a key role in recovering the truck, which was found lodged against a tree, 25-feet deep in the treacherous river.

Retired Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Larry Harlow was at the river that day. A family friend of the Duncans, on Friday Harlow said, “we couldn’t believe what had happened.”

“It was a real sad event,” he said. “ I remember sitting with (the Duncan family) at the river, crying.”

The Nonpareil reported Karen left a note addressed to her husband that she concluded by saying, “Don’t worry, your children will be in God’s hands now.”

After the deaths, the Duncan family issued a statement that said Karen had sought professional help for her depression. Relatives said she had attempted suicide multiple times before, and she had spent time in hospitals for mental health treatment as her husband and family tried to help her, according to the Associated Press. Chris had sought to keep her hospitalized longer during her final court-ordered 72-hour hold, but was denied.

“We sincerely hope and pray that other families who may be experiencing this situation will seek out and receive the help they need,” the Duncan family said in the 2000 statement.

“She was ill,” Chris said Friday. “The day she drove into the river, life changed.”

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The aftermath was a struggle.

“I lived pretty hard for years,” Chris told the group of firefighters.

He said things are better today.

“I’m in a great place today. I’ve been blessed by the Lord to be able to do some good things for people. Give back to the people that were there for me that day. It’s just a blessing to be able to be standing here today,” he said. “The way I lived for many years after that, not giving a (care) about anything -- I’m very grateful to be alive and be able to do this for the fire department.”

Speaking with the firefighters, Chris his gratitude extends beyond the July 2000 event.

“You guys have rescued me a few times myself,” he told the group, mentioning a 2006 motorcycle crash on Valley View Drive.

“I was a complete bloody mess,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine pulling up to something like that. But that’s what you do.”

Chris said he was happy to cook for the firefighters -- who in turn, were appreciative of a great meal -- after spending years in the kitchen. His family operated Duncan’s Cafe in Council Bluffs for decades, while Chris had opened Duncan’s Diner in Missouri Valley in August 1999.

Chris said he still gets behind a grill on occasion, working a few days a week at the Dew Drop Inn in McClelland.

“I hope it was all good for you. I learned from my mother, so if there’s something wrong with it blame it on her,” he said with a laugh.

“She taught you well,” a firefighter responded.

As he delivered the food on Friday, Chris brought a few prepared words for the fire crew members.

“I'm here today because of God's grace and because He has brought me to a place of healing. Over the years, I have been in awe of the way you handle the most difficult of situations and how many people's lives you have touched," he said in thanking the fire department personnel. "Recently, it struck my heart how difficult it had to have been for those of you who shared this evening with me 20 years ago today."

Chris said he was humbled by what the first responders did for his family.

"You were responsible for something very difficult and you handled it with dignity and respect. For those of you who mourned along with me and prayed for me, thank you, it meant the world to me," he said. "Today, I would like to honor you not just for what you did for me but for how you risk your lives every day to help others.”

There is help for anyone struggling with mental health challenges and suicidal thoughts. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255, offers toll-free 24-hour assistance to those in need.

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