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Common mistake leads to needless rescue effort

The 911 call late Tuesday morning could have signaled the start of a tragedy: The caller had seen a person walking on Lake Superior's broken ice out from the Pickwick restaurant near Fifth Avenue East in Duluth. When the caller looked again, the walker was gone.

Dispatchers sent out the Duluth Fire Department, U.S. Coast Guard and St. Louis County Search and Rescue Squad. Crews arriving on the scene confirmed someone appeared to be walking on the ice, with open water between the person and shore. A hovercraft was requested.

Several minutes later, the search was called off: The walker in need of rescue turned out to be a buoy anchored permanently off shore.

"All told, we get in the vicinity of 20 water or ice rescue calls a year, of which, on average, one or two are live-people incidents," Duluth Fire Capt. John Wisneski said. "The buoy [rescue call] seems to come in a couple times a year."

The red buoy in question -- called a nun buoy for its tapered shape (broader at the waterline, narrowing to the top) -- marks submerged ruins in 24 feet of water.

"You probably have a good four, five feet sticking out of the water," Coast Guard Chief Boatswain Mate Derek Franklin said of the buoy.

From a distance, especially when visibility is bad, the buoy can look like a person. Rescuers, peering through curtains of sea fog Tuesday, took several minutes to make sure it wasn't a person in need of help.

"You think it would be easy to tell that it's a buoy right away," Assistant Fire Chief Jim Ray said. "But it's very deceptive. Even through binoculars your vision is obscured. The way the fog is moving it almost appears like someone walking. Not only did it appear to be going sideways, it looked like it was getting closer to us. I see why people would call it in."

While emergency workers thought Tuesday's call might have been a case of mistaken identity, they treated it seriously.

"We always go out like it's something real," Wineskin said. "Maybe on the way home you go: 'Oh, yeah, it's the buoy.' "

Ray said the false alarm cost the city nothing but some fuel and wear and tear on equipment.

"We probably burned more for a run up the hill to a false alarm at St. Scholastica" Tuesday morning, he said.

Though Tuesday's call was a false alarm, not all calls have been. Ray has helped rescue people from drifting lake ice, usually farther from the harbor entrance. With ice forming on the lake, he cautions anglers who may venture onto the ice in coming days to carry a cell phone and to be careful.

"I always tell people: 'You have to watch the wind direction,' " he said. "It doesn't matter how much ice you see. You can see miles of ice. But beyond that can be hundreds of miles of open water. As soon as the wind comes from any angle from the west, that ice will want to move. Once it does, you're stranded."