Lights are useless.
The water — pitch black — hoovers just above the freezing point.
And the diver, with about 100 pounds of equipment, enters the water and descends to the bottom to begin a rescue or recovery effort. The only way out is back through the hole in the ice entered moments before.
Outdoor recreational activities during the winter months often include time spent on the ice. When accidents happen, the Ringgold Community Water Emergency Team has its trailer equipped and ready to respond the moment the team is called out.
Ed Rotert, a self-employed handyman for plumbing, heating, electrical and air conditioning jobs, has been a volunteer rescue diver and training officer since 2005.
Ringgold’s team, a member of the Midwest Regional Dive team, responds to an average of four or five calls a year for water rescues or recoveries.
Rotert is also a member of the executive council of the Midwest team.
The team’s most recent dive was a successful recovery of a body in Lake Ponderosa near Montezuma.
“We don’t take over the scene, we take control of the water,” Rotert said. “We talk to witnesses, some of us meet and form a plan of action, and then we implement that plan and start diving and searching.”
Rotert said there are several key factors anyone on the ice needs to keep in mind in order to stay safe on the ice this winter.
First, he said it is never good to be on the ice alone, but stay spread out on the ice to keep weight dispersed.
He added to constantly check for cracks or changes in the ice.
If a fall through happens, immediately call for help. Anyone in the water should try to hold on to the ice pack.
“If it is really cold weather and you can get your coat sleeves damp, lay them on the ice and don’t move them,” Rotert said. “It freezes your coat to the ice. If hypothermia sets in and you pass out, you don’t slide off the ice.”
Rotert said anyone nearby should not approach the hole. After calling for help, try to get a hose or rope to toss to the victim in the water.
Creston Fire Department and other local fire departments are trained for cold water surface recovery.
“We are designed for quick response, if they are on the surface we can get them off,” Assistant Fire Chief Mick Landers said. “We do have some techniques to help try to extend our search under water, but we technically do not enter under water.”
Rescue and recovery
Once a victim is no longer on the surface of the water, surface rescue teams are limited by their equipment and help prepare the scene for the dive team.
“We treat everything up to three hours as a rescue,” Rotert said.
A primary diver enters the water first with a backup diver waiting in case the first diver experiences any trouble. During ice recoveries, the diver wears a harness with a rope to tender them to the hole on the surface.
“The guys on the surface, their fingers get numb,” Rotert said. “They are dealing with the water and wet ropes. It’s a job just keeping their hands dry.”
Each diver takes 20 minute shifts. A scribe on the surface documents the time each diver spends under water, track fatigue and the amount of oxygen used.
Sometimes dives can take days, so crews like the Creston Fire Department offer support and vital supplies for the dive teams.
The cold water often causes gear failure, making the rescue or recovery effort even more challenging.
While assisting in the recovery effort in Lake Ponderosa, Rotert said the cold water forced his o-ring on his air tank to shrink and malfunction. Other divers also had problems with plastic parts breaking in the cold.
Rotert said it is a common misconception that a search under the water is like a search on land. Once on the bottom, the divers can only use their hands to feel along the bottom.
The search method is a grid pattern. A rope with a knot every five feet allows the diver to search a specific circumference before moving to the next knot on the rope.
Rotert said it is a very meticulous process.
“It’s very difficult when you’re under water, it’s black and you can’t see anything,” Rotert said. “Pretty soon, you’re off pattern five feet, and that’s where the body will be.”
Rotert said the Midwest Regional Dive Association is composed of teams from Red Oak, Clarinda, Mount Ayr, Cass County, Adams County and may be adding a team from the Carter Lake area soon.
Each team brings a different component to the dive association, making the group an effective diving unit.
Rotert said they also have regional training eight to 10 times a year. All divers are required to attend at least 50 percent of the training.
Landers said the Creston Fire Department has more than 10 members trained for cold water surface rescue, and they have continued education classes each year.