7. Ice Rescue Suits and Accessories
ICE RESCUE AT LAKE ST. CLAIR, MICHIGAN
by Janelle Beardsley
MARSARS Water Rescue Systems, Inc. Copywrite 2001
Lake St. Clair, together with the Saint Clair River to the north and the Detroit
River to the south, forms a connecting waterway between Lakes Huron and Erie.
Residents of nearby Detroit, to the southwest, and Ontario Canada, on the south
and east shores, enjoy excellent ice fishing opportunities there. But for seventeen
people on the afternoon and evening of December 29, 1998, an ice fishing
expedition on Lake St. Clair turned into a major ice rescue, involving several
Michigan fire departments and U.S. Coast Guard Stations.
The Harrison Township Fire Department was the first to respond to the distress
call at 4:38 PM. They were well trained and experienced in ice rescue, performing
a dozen or more rescues every year, most of these involving only a small number of
people. It is a testament to their bravery and skill and to that of the Coast Guard
that no lives were lost in the six hour rescue. But this story will show what fire and
ice rescue professionals all know to be true: that having the right equipment at the
right time, in proper working order, for the worst possible conditions, can be the
difference between success or failure in a rescue.
By five o'clock the worst possible conditions were quickly approaching the
rescuers and victims. Who would of guessed that the partly sunny day with a safe
on-shore wind would change so dramatically into winds nearing 45 mph, seas of 4-8
feet waves, snowfall creating whiteout conditions at times and temperatures in the
single digits? The Coast Guard reported a risk factor of Amber, meaning that the
operating conditions would put rescuers and equipment in some danger. This
usually abrupt change of weather, combined with darkness by 5:30 PM, continued
to worsen during the rescue, threatening the lives and equipment of everyone
By the time the Harrison Fire Department arriver at Metro Beach on the west
side of the lake, the six inch thick ice flow that the fishermen were on had drifted
3/4 of a mile into the lake with a quarter of a mile of open water between it and
shore ice. There was no question that the rescue would be accomplished, but was
the fire department's 14' skiff seaworthy enough to make multiple journeys, fully
loaded, across open, increasingly rough water? Did the skiff have enough
freeboard, or height between the water and the top of boat's side, to avoid taking on
water? These were unavoidable gambles that Captain Seitz, the overall Incident
Commander from Harrison Township, had to take.
Fortunately, eight people were rescued in two sorties, aided by the arrival of the
Coast Guard Station St. Clair's 14' motorized boat which towed the fire departments
skiff. But on the second trip back to the ice the skiff began to take on water. The
Coast Guard had to cut it free to avoid sinking their own boat. They were, however,
able to rescue an additional three people.
By 6 PM, one hour and twenty minutes after the incident began, nine people
still remained on the ice, which was now three miles off shore, being blown south
towards Ontario at about two and a half miles per hour. Sergeant Frank Share,
from the Harrison Fire Department, had remained on the ice with the panic-stricken
victims from the beginning.
But by 6:30 PM the Coast Guard boat crew could no longer continue the
rescue due to the blizzard conditions. Fortunately a Coast Guard helicopter,
Rescue 65, arrived on the scene almost at the same time as a hovercraft, which the
Ira Township Fire Department brought from 35 miles away. Between these two new
assets, at least six more victims were rescued, leaving three people still on the ice
with Sergeant Share and Firefighter Jeff Leininger, who had joined him from the
"When I first arrived on the ice," said Sergeant Share, "it was about 200x300
yards in size, but now it was breaking up quickly against the six foot waves. I
knew it wouldn't last the 25 minutes until the hovercraft or helo returned. We were
going to go in the water!"
The two firemen were protected in their cold water ice rescue suits and their life
jackets had lights. But the three fishermen had only their winter clothes and two
life jackets between them. When the ice did break up into large, rather dangerous
chunks it became Leininger's job to hold onto the unconscious victim, the one
without the life jacket. Sergeant Shars's job was to constantly keep the other two
victims from floating away in the high waves. They were still conscious against the
34 degree water, but had lost fine motor control and were quickly approaching
"I still had radio communication with shore and a flashlight, but the ice chunks
were crashing into us. I was bruised from head to toe and the lights on the
lifejackets were crushed. It was like this for at least fifteen minutes," recounted
Finally the helicopter arrived and rescued the two most critical victims, leaving
Sergeant Share, Firefighter Leininger and the remaining victim to wait for the
hovercraft, which arrived a little before 7:30 PM with two firemen from Ira Township.
But once underway with the five men, the sixteen foot hovercraft could make no
headway against the strong winds.
"We went no where for fifteen minutes!" said Sgt. Share. "Waves this size in a
lake are like fifteen foot waves in the ocean and we capsized. We lost all
communications and all lights except for the submerged bow lights. We scrambled
on top of the craft, but were still sitting in ice water. At least the battery was still
working so we wondered, 'What could bring us some light?"
One of the Ira firemen remembered that the a spotlight was hard-wired directly
into the battery and was probably hanging underneath the hovercraft by its cord.
Jeff Leininger was the tallest at 6'4" and was chosen to be the one to go under to
try to find the dangling cord. It took the weight of the other three firemen to
submerge him against the buoyant suit and life jacket. After five attempts he finally
found the cord with his leg and pulled it out. The length of the cord barely allowed
the light to break the water's surface, but it was sufficient for Rescue 65 to locate
"I knew what our fate would be if we were not found: we would continue to drift
south and be ground into the pack ice on the Canadian shore, or at least forced
underneath that ice shelf! I knew we were getting to be only a couple of miles away
from the Canadian shore." said Sergeant Share.
Rescue 65 evacuated the by-now unconscious and hypothermic victim to Air
Station Detroit, as the firemen waited 15 more minutes for a 41 foot CG boat to
arrive. "Our faces were covered with ice but inside the ice suits we were sweating! I
couldn't have survived for five hours in those conditions without that suit," said
Sergeant Share (Under his suit, Share wore only cotton socks, polyester pants,
and a cotton T-shirt. Except for a wet face, his body was completely dry when he
removed his rescue
It was after ten o'clock that all rescuers and victims were safe back on shore as
the storm raged on. It only took one unusually high "rogue" wave to flip the
hovercraft, but the firemen were well-protected in their cold water suits, permitting
the fine motor control they needed to survive and save lives. It was nearly the worst
possible conditions for an ice/open cold water rescue. Did the rescuers have the
right equipment: did it perform in the right way at the right time? The answer is the
difference between success or failure in a business that forgives no oversight.
EQUIPMENT & SAR GEAR ADDED BY HARRISON FIRE DEPARTMENT SINCE
STROBE LIGHTS mounted on shoulders of all life jackets and ice rescue suits.
FLARES with each ice rescue suit
MARSARS Water Rescue Systems, Inc.
155 Myrtle Street
Shelton, Connecticut, 06484
USA. Contents Copyright 2007-2008
MARSARS Inc. All Rights Reserved
Telephone: Toll-Free 866-426-2423
Fax: 203 924 4198