News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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February 26, 2014

VIDEO: First responders train for ice rescues

TERRE HAUTE — The phrase “skating on thin ice” refers to a risky situation, and with good reason.

Falling through the thin ice of a frozen lake or pond can be the last thing a person does if a rescue is not quickly made.

On Tuesday, some area firefighters and Indiana conservation officers voluntarily took a plunge in the icy lake at Maple Avenue Nature Park to train for ice rescues.

“It’s realistic conditions for a rescue,” said conservation officer Max Winchell, who trains divers for water rescue and recovery.

The three-inch thickness of the ice would be a temptation for someone wanting to skate or play hockey or ice fish.

But while it was strong enough to hold up a person for a while, it had weak spots that an adult or child could break through.

Winchell used an ice auger to create a hole in the frozen surface several yards from the shoreline. Then, protected by a dive suit but covered by regular clothing to simulate the feel of a person who falls through the ice, Sugar Creek firefighter Hidekatsu “Kaji” Kajitani slid out to the water and took a plunge so he could be rescued.

Fellow Sugar Creek water rescue team members Jared Dougherty and Doug Hannah inched out on to the ice in their protective gear and hauled Kajitani from the water. It wasn’t easy, but it was good training. Fellow firefighter Emily Wheatfill was also in on the training, demonstrating that it’s not easy to throw a rescue bag to a person trapped in the ice.

Otter Creek firefighters Hunter Barnes and D.J. Dowell also assisted in a rescue, and five conservation officers also dove into the frigid water to recover a training mannequin that had sunk to the bottom.

Though the temperature was in the low 20s and a brisk breeze made it feel colder, Tuesday’s sunny skies made it a good day for training on the three-inch-thick ice.

Kajitani, who is captain of special operations for the Sugar Creek Fire Department, said he was glad for the opportunity to prepare for the future.

“If I have to get into the water for a victim, it’s not going to be my first time,” he said while taking off his water gear. “My stress level will be lower.”

He pointed out that he never expected to rescue someone from a tall tower, as he did a few years ago as part of the Sugar Creek Technical Rescue Team, but he was glad then to have the training that made that rescue successful.

“This is 100 percent preventable, if people just stay off the ice,” Kajitani said of ice rescues. “But, it is better to have the training and never have to use it, than to have no training.”

Winchell said that people who fall through the ice usually have about 7 to 10 minutes before their body starts to shut down. The first thing that usually happens to a person is that they lose their breath from the shock of the cold and start to hyperventilate. If the person can calm down, and then turn to face the direction they came from when they fell through the ice, that is a first step to getting out of the water, he said.

It is not easy to pull oneself out of the water without handheld ice picks to poke into the ice as a grip. However, if a person can float up with their body flattened out and kick like they’re swimming back toward the ice on which they were walking, they can often get at least part of their body out of the water.

Once back atop the ice, rolling away from the hole toward the stronger ice is the next step.

“If they can’t get out, in a worst case scenario,” Winchell said, “they should get as much of their body out onto the ice as they can, and hope for their clothes to freeze there and keep their head out of the water, until a rescuer can get to them.”

Standing on the shore of the lake, the ice looks peaceful and strong. Thin ice is deceiving. There’s a good reason that a city parks department sign at the lake warns: No Ice Fishing.

Accidents happen. Fortunately, local rescue teams are prepared.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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