OAK HARBOR, Ohio — A miles-wide ice floe broke away today from Lake Erie’s shoreline, trapping more than 130 fishermen, some for as long as four hours. One man fell into the water and later died.
A Coast Guard spokesman, Chief Petty Officer Robert Lanier, said 134 people had been plucked from the ice by late afternoon. Rescuers lowered baskets onto the ice from helicopters, and people climbed in and were lifted to safety. Others boarded whirring air boats that glided across the ice.
“We were in no danger,” said Norb Pilaczynski of Swanton, Ohio, who was rescued from the lake along with several of his friends. “We knew there was enough ice out there.”
The day began with fishermen setting down wooden pallets to create a bridge over a crack in the ice so they could roam farther out on the lake. But the planks fell into the water when the ice shifted, stranding the fishermen about 1,000 yards off shore.
“We get people out here who don’t know how to read the ice,” Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton said. “What happened here today was just idiotic. I don’t know how else to put it.”
The man who died fell into the water while searching with others for a link to the shoreline, Bratton said. Others tried CPR before the man was flown to a hospital and pronounced dead, he said.
Officials were trying to verify the man’s identity and notify his relatives, Lanier said.
There were four helicopters — two from Detroit and two from Traverse City, Mich. — and eight air boats from the Coast Guard, Lanier said. Local authorities also sent air boats to rescue the people from the ice floe.
Mike Sanger of Milwaukee said the crack in the ice had been tighter earlier in the morning.
“I was told the lake was froze all the way across,” said Sanger, 51. “I didn’t think the lake could go anywhere.”
Ice on western sections of Lake Erie was up to 2 feet thick today, National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Randel said. The ice cracked as temperatures rose and winds of up to 35 mph pushed on the ice.
When fishermen realized late this morning that the ice had broken away, they began to debate the best way off, Sanger said, adding that no one appeared to be too scared. Some chose to sit and wait for authorities, while others headed east in search of an ice bridge.
Fishermen closer to the ice break used their cell phones to warn those farther out on the ice.
For entertainment while they waited, one angler dropped a recently hooked walleye — the target catch of the season — back into the water as a group gathered to watch it swim, said fisherman David Hudzinski of Muskego, Wis.
Others managed to get to land on their own by riding their all-terrain vehicles about five miles east to where ice hadn’t broken away.
A second fisherman went into the frigid water when he tried to drive his ATV over a small crack in the ice, Lanier said. A rescue boat pulled him out within a few minutes, and he was brought to shore and wrapped in blankets. The man was not treated at a hospital and went home, Lanier said.
Sanger said he was rescued after about an hour by one of several private charter air boats that pulled up and offered rides.
Those rescued had to leave behind most of their equipment, such as coolers, snowmobiles and all terrain vehicles.
Ice fisherman who regularly visit the lake have said this winter’s thick ice has lured more people to the lake. The numbers of ice fishermen has been unprecedented, said Oak Harbor resident Peter Harrison, who has lived on the shore for 40 years.
“There was a heck of a city out there for the last week and a half, two weeks,” the 71-year-old said.
Bratton said he discussed possible rescue plans with his colleagues on Friday after meteorologists forecast higher temperatures for the weekend.
Even in cold temperatures, the ice in western Lake Erie is often unsafe because of currents that can easily cause the ice to shift.
Ohio Division of Wildlife spokeswoman Jamey Graham said the state annually warns fishermen that there’s no such thing as “safe ice.” And authorities along the lake are trained for these type of rescues.
“You have to know the weather. You have to know how to read the ice,” Bratton said. “It doesn’t take much for this to break.”
The rescue operation cost thousands of dollars and pulled emergency responders away from other duties, Bratton said. None of the fishermen would likely be forced to cover the cost of rescue operations, Lanier said.
“To the best of my knowledge, they didn’t break any laws,” he said. “Ice fishing is a culture here on the Great Lakes.”
Bob Bochi, a friend of Pilaczynski, said their group of friends remained calm during the ordeal because the ice around them was about 14 to 18 inches thick.
Sanger said his biggest disappointment is that his vehicle is still floating in the middle of the lake, meaning he can’t fish on Sunday as planned. Pilaczynski’s all-terrain vehicle was also left on the ice.
“We’ll go swimming for it this spring,” said Bochi, 54.