Man rescued from icy water returns to make donation
A Bloomington businessman plucked from icy Island Lake two weeks ago met with his rescuers Wednesday night, thanked them and showered them with donations of equipment including the hovercraft that sank south of Nevis.
"I certainly appreciate all your efforts," said Ken "Kenny" Thompson to the two-dozen rescuers assembled at the Hubbard County Law Enforcement Center.
"That two minutes really made a difference."
The two minutes he referred to were the estimated remaining time to pull Thompson, his son and son's girlfriend out alive. The rescue took nearly an hour; the three were in the icy waters 14 minutes after the hovercraft they were on sank as rescuers desperately tried to reach them offshore.
"Their body temperatures were 89 degrees," said Hubbard First Responder Jason "Bucky" Johnson. "The heart stops at 85. It was pretty hairy."
"It was a chain of events that went south in a hurry," Thompson acknowledged.
The purpose of the meeting was to accept Thompson's generosity, but to also address the county's weaknesses in rescue operations.
Many things went right, they agreed. And some didn't.
Jerry Bunting, a friend of Thompson's and retired firefighter who was on the scene helping, praised the rescuers.
"Nobody was willing to let the emotions of the situation suck 'em into a vortex" of failure, he said.
Johnson convened the meeting to see if the groups assembled could form an elite rescue team using selected members of their squads.
"You need more specialty equipment," Thompson suggested. "I've stayed up late at night figuring how not to do this again."
Thompson uses his hovercrafts - he actually has three - to get back and forth to his cabin on an island on the lake.
But he added hastily, "I don't have any complaints."
Too many close calls
The meeting took a serious turn when emergency crews reminisced about the close calls they've been on throughout the years on lakes, on ice, in rugged forests, on trails they were unfamiliar with.
"I've been on so many dilemmas where we lucked out," Johnson said.
And the room full of emergency personnel wondered if - or when - their luck might run out.
But most agreed they don't have the manpower to form a special rescue unit. So it was determined they would all pursue their specialties and train together.
The first step, many agreed, was to compile a "resource list" of which department has which rescue equipment so dispatchers know who to call to a particular situation.
Nevis now has Thompson's hovercraft, which the Lakes Area Dive Team retrieved.
"You're the guys that got my hovercraft out of the water?" Thompson asked Kevin Krueger and Steve Blanchard, president and vice president of the team. They nodded.
Thompson praised the divers for raising the sunken craft without doing further damage to it.
That group will get two sets of SCUBA gear from Thompson.
He even offered to repair the Walker Fire Department's hovercraft pontoons ripped during the launch.
"It wasn't pretty," said Walker firefighter Scott Winter of the trip downhill from an adjacent lake home. The hovercraft bounced off trees, obstructions, vegetation and cattails all the way down the steep hill as members struggled to control it.
"We just about took your squad door off," he laughed to Hubbard County Emergency Manager Brian Halbasch.
Winter said the Fire Department's hovercraft normally carries 1,500 pounds and is operated by two people.
"I made the decision to send a single driver out" to rescue the three, he told the group. He didn't want the rescue impeded by more personnel. Driver Gary Bilben was able to hoist the three victims aboard in seconds and hauled them to shore in minutes.
At the meeting Johnson worried that "we need to narrow up the response time." A few minutes can be a life or death situation, he said.
Johnson recruited snowmobile groups and a trail groomer to join forces with emergency personnel. The plan is to eventually involve the mounted posse and ATV clubs. They know the trails better than emergency personnel, the group reasoned.
"Not one group can support a countywide rescue team," Johnson said. Many of the departments struggle with limited budgets and equipment.
But they also want to involve all the geographic regions of the county, so not all the rescue equipment is concentrated in one area.
Thompson supported that plan and said he will donate a 6-wheel amphibious vehicle to one of the more remote locations for rescue operations.
"I wanted to see some support in some of those areas," Thompson said.
Hubbard County Sheriff-elect Cory Aukes suggested some mass training exercises would smooth coordination of future rescue operations.
"It's just a matter of organizing what we have," said Dennis Mackedanz of North Memorial Ambulance. "This could be a stepping stone."
And Mackedanz suggested "maybe we're not lacking" equipment. "We just don't know our own resources."
The groups agreed mass training exercises would allow each to showcase their specialties and train others.
Debriefing the rescue
While the group talked of their needs they informally debriefed the rescue mission. Nevis Fire & Rescue will have a formal debriefing Monday night at the monthly meeting.
One or two cold water rescue suits need repair. They're referred to as "Gumby" suits for their bright orange color.
"I guess I should be carrying one of them, too," Thompson said. His hovercraft had no life jackets that day.
The suits will be repaired this week.
"I know where it leaks," Halbasch said wryly to laughter. His suit leaked icy water that day as he tried to swim behind a rescue pontoon pushing it to the stranded trio.
The exertion of the effort and added cold water made it impossible for him to continue.
And as the groups pledged to work together, Thompson said he would be there for them as a benefactor, cheerleader or whatever they needed.
He immediately ordered a rescue device called a ResQmax, a thrower that shoots an inflation device and retrieval line hundreds of feet. It is launched through a gun that looks like a Super Soaker.
Thompson assured the rescuers he would not be using another hovercraft to reach his cabin for awhile, until the ice had thickened.
"But I'm thinking of buying an air boat," he laughed.
The group dissembled after telling Thompson how good he looked after his ordeal.
And they discussed how they lucked out one more time.