Divers face risks in ice water rescues [Chicago Tribune :: ]
(Chicago Tribune (IL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 09--When the Chicago Fire Department scuba team arrived on the south side of the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue just before 5 a.m. Dec. 17, fresh snow blanketed the ground, covering any footprints where a woman had slipped into the frigid water.
But after talking to witnesses, divers had an important clue: the "last-seen point," a break in the ice where they believed she likely fell through. Within minutes, diver Brian Coffman climbed down a ladder and plunged through the 6-by-6-foot hole into the cold darkness.
"I don't see very much," Coffman recalled. "I have a flashlight. I descend to the bottom right away to do a quick search and don't come up with anything. I come back up to the top, to the ice shelf. Joe (his partner) could see my flashlight as I was spidering out."
From there, Coffman was guided, over wired communication, through one of the more dangerous, if rare, types of emergency water operations -- an ice dive -- in which a diver must rapidly search beneath solid ice without a quick way to ascend.
The lifeline, literally, is the firefighter, called a "tender," at the other end, clenching a rope that is attached and locked to the diver.
The woman Coffman was searching for that morning did not survive. He and fellow diver Joe Jalove would return to the river for a second ice dive when three more people went into the water a month later. That incident would lead to the second and third drownings of the season.
The risks are substantial not just for those who are in trouble in the water. The divers, too, must prepare for technical challenges and the myriad ways a rescue might go wrong. If nothing else, this winter has provided ample opportunities for training.
In a record-breaking season for zero or subzero days, ice covered 92 percent of Lake Michigan as of last week -- the deepest freeze in 35 years and a sharp reversal from the light touch of ice in recent winters.
Forceful winds and waves on the lakefront created packed and stacked ice, leading to obscured shoreline and mesmerizing berms that rise and fall on the beaches, officials said.
The ice has stretched so far out into the water that the Fire Department created a new response protocol. Inflatable boats were tested with pulleys and anchors so responders could launch a rescue operation from the edge of the ice shelf -- in some cases 200 feet out.
The Chicago Park District erected warning signs and sawhorses along the lakefront. Chicago police have responded with ticket books and brawn.
Recently, an officer on the Far North Side ticketed a family that was trekking 100 feet beyond the shoreline at Jarvis Beach.
On the rescue side, police pulled a 31-year-old man out of the Chicago River after finding him submerged up to his hairline amid ice chunks. At least twice this season, officers rescued people by forming human chains to pull them from the water off Adler Planetarium.
Time for training
On a recent bitter Wednesday afternoon, small clear pools of water had opened near the boat slips in Belmont Harbor, a teasing reminder of warmer days on Chicago's lakefront.
But on this day, most of the harbor was still a vast, blinding, silent blanket of ice. Jalove -- in full diving gear, every inch of his body covered and sealed to prevent water from seeping in and causing numbness -- launched off the shelf.
The steady ice cover has provided regular real-world training for the Fire Department.
After slipping into the water, Jalove -- carrying two tanks, cutting tools, a weight belt and a harness -- headed for the bottom, then floated back to the ice shelf, gripping it with a gloved hand to inch along. Then, stomach upward, he glided under the ice.
"Spider back on that ice shelf," said Coffman, 44, his eyes following the line.
Jalove, a 10-year scuba team member who swims competitively, concedes that being under the ice is "freaky," a little unnatural. But he and Coffman have trained so much that they know the distinct rhythm of each other's breathing.
"Nobody is ever 100 percent comfortable under there," said Chicago Fire Department Deputy District Chief Ronald Dorneker, who oversees water and dive operations. "But you know who is tending you, you are comfortable with your equipment. We practice if they get disconnected or they are lost under the ice shelf. We practice everything."
In December it had been Coffman below the river's surface on a real ice dive as police and fire personnel responded to the report of a woman who slipped into the river at Michigan Avenue on a late-night walk with friends.
Jalove, 47, had taken hold of a long rope locked to the harness over Coffman's dive suit and stood at the river's edge, headset on, so he could direct Coffman through a search based on the radius around where a victim falls under the water.
Coffman, a former lifeguard who has been on the scuba team for six years, descended into the water by ladder and plunged forward in one fluid motion to get under the shelf.
Unlike a fire -- which can seem like organized chaos as wood splits, windows break, radios cackle and alarms ding in the heat and smoke -- diving is a somewhat silent, solitary endeavor.
The visibility was limited to an arm's length. As he descended, Coffman's senses dulled, and he could hear just his own breathing, bubbles and Jalove's distant voice.
"You're all alone in the water," Coffman said. "(But) you know there is a guy sitting there to back you up."
Jalove directed Coffman about 35 feet out and then 25 feet below to start a box pattern to sweep the riverbed for the victim, identified by family as 31-year-old Keisha Garnett of Dallas.
"That's perfect," Jalove told Coffman, who propelled himself with his fins as he felt for the victim with his hands. "That's perfect. That's perfect."
With each turn, Jalove and Coffman worked to keep the line between them tight so that it wouldn't snag on anything and risk cutting Coffman free under the shelf. In that case, the search would have been suspended while a backup diver went in to find Coffman and guide him out.
But within six minutes, Coffman had found Garnett.
"This has been a true test for us," Dorneker said of the extreme season. "On that night (Coffman) ... was completely under ice. They knew the depth of the water, they knew the search pattern and they found her on second pass. They were spot on."
(c)2014 the Chicago Tribune
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