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Two Department of Natural Resources divers return to the surface after diving under the ice at Patoka Lake during a training exercise last Tuesday. The dive-master, sitting, maintains constant radio contact with the divers while other officers stand by to assist if needed. (Photos by Lee Cable)

Braving the ice today to save lives tomorrow

January 28, 2009
On a recent cold winter morning, the ground was covered with a blanket of fresh snow and the ice on Patoka Lake was about three to four inches thick. Nick Clutinger showed up at the South Boat Ramp with a chain saw, walked out on the ice and cut a 6-by-10-foot hole, getting it ready for — yes — someone to dive into.

It's difficult for most people to believe that anyone would want to dive in water that cold and swim around under the ice, but that's exactly what took place less than an hour later.

Four highly-trained Department of Natural Resources divers — Terry Allen of Crawford County, Trent Stinson of Pike County, Eric Doane of Shoals and Ryan Jahn of Lawrence County — pulled special dry suits over their long johns, strapped on air tanks and communication equipment, and took the plunge, two at a time.

A conservation officer/diver waits for his partner before going under the ice. The divers are attached to a rope to help find their way back to the hole in the ice. Visibility in the murky water is limited to about two feet.
The dive was a well-planned event, designed as a training to help conservation officers, who are also divers, increase skills needed to operate in such extreme conditions. The officers are often called on to search submerged vehicles in rivers and lakes and to look for people who have fallen through ice and into frigid water.

"We have to be ready at a minute's notice," Allen said. "One time, I got to a scene where we thought someone had gone under, and there were several people gathered there. I had to strip down to my boxers and suit up with everyone watching, but you just have to do what you can to help.

"That was in warm weather, and I wish we only had to dive in good weather, but unfortunately, that's not always the case."

On the morning of the practice dive, the air temperature was in the 20s and the water temperature was just above freezing. The dry suits that the officers were wearing looked inadequate for the conditions, but, in fact, the divers said, they were quite warm. Once they were in the water, the officers claimed to be comfortable.

"It's actually warmer in the water than the air temperature where we're standing now," Stinson said. "My feet got a little cold just walking to the water, but once I was in, it wasn't bad at all."

One factor that each of the divers pointed out was that visibility was extremely limited under the ice.

"We could see about an arm's length," Allen said. "It's like diving in tea. Everything we do is by feel and touch. When you dive under the ice, it's really dark. If you look up, you really can't see the ice, even though psychologically, you know the ice is above you, and you know there's only one way in and one way out. You have to get back to that hole in the ice."

The teamwork at the dive was precise and strict guidelines were followed to keep the divers safe. Two divers entered the water together while another stayed behind to act as dive-master, monitoring communication to those under the ice. Another diver stood nearby, ready to help if those in the water needed assistance. When the divers resurfaced, they made their way to the top of the boat ramp to a tent that had been set up, complete with a wood stove that kept the tent warm and cozy. Everyone warmed up a few minutes, then the divers traded places and the other two went into the water.

"Water-related rescues and tragedy (do) not end with the coming of winter," First Sgt. Phil Schuetter, field supervisor for District 8, said. "Any number of emergencies can arise, from vehicle slide-offs into the water to ice fishermen falling through the ice to children being tempted by an ice-covered pond. Our divers are ready to respond wherever they are needed."

"Normally, we'd have to travel up north to make ice dives," Allen said, "but this year we were lucky and Patoka froze over. So, we thought we'd take advantage of it and do a dive. I did my first one back in 1998, but we have a lot better equipment now.

"Back then, we didn't have the full face masks that we have now, and your face really got cold. But with the full masks, that's not a problem at all. And now, we have pony tanks — small tanks of air that we take under with us as spares — just in case something happens. If there's no ice and something goes wrong, all you have to do is go up to the surface. But with ice over you, you don't just go up, you have to have time to find the hole."

The divers are clipped to a rope, handled by a helper on the bank, and the rope is fed out as the divers move away. When they get to an area they want to search, the rope is held tight by the person on the bank and the divers go back and forth in a pattern as far as the rope will allow. Then, the helper pulls the rope in a little, and the divers search a pattern back and forth again until the area has been completely searched. The divers then follow the rope back to the entrance hole.

"You really need personal support to do it safely," Allen said. "It would be really risky to go in the icy water alone. But if I could save someone's life and didn't have time to wait for help, I'd probably go in."

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