SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Noel Smith had 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 had decided to gather for Christmas. Last weekend, 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.
"It just sucked them down, out and under the ice, kind of like being on a slide," said Pat Oilar, chief of the McArthur Volunteer Fire Department and one of the rescuers who responded.
Three of the four Smith brothers — Noel, 39, Andrew, 34, and Nathan, 32 — were just 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, Delta, 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 Noel but broke through themselves.
"They were heroes, they would stand by each other," Noel Smith's mother-in-law, Dee, said Wednesday. "What happened is exactly what we'd expect. Noel was just the kind of man, he would have run into a burning building if he'd seen something. He just had a big, big heart."
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. Andrew later was released from a local hospital after being treated for hypothermia.
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. Oilar estimated 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 had 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 went to work at a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. hydroelectric plant.
"The brothers always did things together. All the brothers each year with their dad had a camping trip. Their lives really revolved around doing things with each other," said Lisa's mother, Dee, who would not give her last name. "They were more than brothers, they were best friends."
Nathan Smith, a former Marine, worked as an electrician's apprentice in the Sacramento suburb of Citrus Heights, near where the family had grown up. Like his brothers, he loved mountains and lakes, said Jim Allen of Allen and Dahl Funeral Home in Palo Cedro, after speaking with the men's parents.
Noel and Lisa had been a couple since they met in high school when both were 16, and celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary in August, said Lisa's mother. She said Lisa intends to stay in Burney and open a health food store.
The tragedy left the family struggling to find meaning in the deaths.
"The brothers had sacrificed themselves, in a sense, trying to help one another," said Pastor Ken Frazier of the Word of Life Assembly, 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."
"The family members all just came together in prayer," Lisa Smith said in a brief telephone interview. "That's all we wanted to say."
Drownings caused by people venturing onto thin ice are rare in Shasta County because people who live there generally know the danger, said Oilar, the fire chief.
They are more common in populated areas near Lake Tahoe, said Lt. Les Lovell, a 28-year veteran of the El Dorado County Sheriff's office in South Lake Tahoe.
"(Frozen lakes) tend to become an attractive nuisance, not just for wildlife but for pets and kids who want to go out on the ice," Lovell said. "I certainly understand why people want to rescue a pet, but it's a dangerous situation."