Fatalities on North American Ice -2013 Season
A www search for news reports of lake ice fatalities in North America in the 2013 season came up with 53 lake and river ice fatalities. All of these incidents were tragic and they have brought much grief to families and friends. The following reviews each incident and tries to identify ice related factors that may have contributed to the outcome that might help the rest of us avoid similar situations. The report avoids judging the victims. Most people who have spent a lot of time on the ice have, at one time or another, put themselves in situations similar to some of those described below. Most of us have been lucky. This report is about those who were not.
In all but two cases I did not visit the accident scene. I have used news reports, the weather history from wunderground.com, MODIS satellite images, USGS stream flow data, google maps, etc to try to sort out what the probable contributing factors were. Without seeing conditions on the ground at the time of the accident there is inevitably some conjecture about the ice situation. If you know details that should be included, please get in touch.
Main Conclusions (in rough order of importance):
- Wear a life jacket, flotation suit or float coat: A reasonably conservative assessment of these fatalities suggests over half of the victims would have survived if they had flotation. If you are not a competent swimmer with the skills and agility to climb back onto the ice, the need for a lifejacket is even greater.
- Stay off the ice at night or in poor visibility: This was particularly a problem with snowmobiles where 68% of the deaths were at night. Two thirds of those were attributed to loosing their bearings on ice with known open water or thin ice. Four other victims (one skater and three walkers) fell through dodgy ice at night. More
- If your riding or fishing partner or your pet falls through, don't move an inch until you call 911: There is a STRONG impulse to do something quickly to help your friend. In almost all cases, getting professional help on the way is the most important thing you can do. In the incidents described here no rescue attempts by companions were successful. None of the attempts by bystanders who did not have a boat or a rope (or a rope equivalent like a hose, extension chord or long stick) were successful either. In seven incidents involving 14 deaths, it is known or likely that one person fell through first and a second person fell through while trying to rescue them. In 6 more incidents involving 7 deaths the would-be rescuers fell in while trying to save their buddies. In all but one case, survivors were rescued by trained Rescue personnel or neighbors with a boat. Note: given that this report only includes fatal incidents it may understate rescue effectiveness (if a rescue were successful it would not be included here). In spite of this, the data suggests clearly that trying to rescue someone in the water without at least a throw rope is more likely to fail. Having a dry partner call 911 and guide the firemen to the site is more likely to save the person in the water than having two people struggling in the water with two water logged cell phones. If trained rescuers are too far away or unavailable, make a plan before acting on impulse. For example, try to organize a better equipped and more organized rescue with the help of people and equipment on shore. Better yet, make your rescue plan well ahead of time, get the necessary equipment and practice the plan.
- Carry basic safety equipment: Ice claws (ice picks) and a way to test the ice will make it less likely you will fall through and more likely you will be out quickly if you do. Ice claws would have significantly improved the odds for about 80% of the victims. Effective use of a spud or test pole could have kept several of the victims from stepping through thin or weak thawed ice. A throw rope will significantly improve your odds of making a successful rescue. A waterproofed cell phone (in a waterproof case or zip lock bag) will allow you to make a 911 call that would not happen with a wet phone. A powerful LED flashlight will be helpful if you are on the ice at night (in spite of the above advice). A compass and a map or a GPS can keep you from getting lost or help you find a known 'safe route home'. If you are going to be far from shore, take a change of clothes in a waterproof bag.
- Stay off the ice on warm days: Several fishermen fell though ice that supported them in the morning but became too weak as the warm temperatures and/or sun thawed the ice. Going out on warm days is always higher risk. If you go, you need to have the skills to assess how the ice is holding up and have the good judgement to get off well before it gets too weak.
- Thawed ice can stay weak for several days after cold weather returns. Seven accidents involved breakthroughs (often with vehicles) a couple days to a week after the end of a significant thaw. Multiple days at near freezing can be sufficient to weaken the ice.
- Current speeds on rivers above about one mph are deadly.
Summary Data (the numbers are fatalities)
Ice and weather and night time
- Warm/thaw conditions: 21
- Night time 18
- Recent warm weather followed by colder temps: 16
- Known open water/bad ice: 14
- Stayed on thawing ice too long: 8
- Thin ice (often warm as well) 7+
- Probable holes or ridges 7+
- Fast current: 4
- Under ice erosion: 6+
- November 2012 2
- December 2012 6
- January 2013 16
- February 2013 14
- March 2013 10
- April 2013 4
By state or country:
- Canada: 10
- WI: 10
- IL and MN: 6
- ME: 5
- MI, NJ: 3
- NY, OH, PA: 2
- AK, IA, IN, VT: 1
- Snowmobiling: 19
- Fishing: 10
- Driving a Car/truck/tractor: 5
- Walking: 5
- Playing (children): 4
- Skating: 3
- Farming: 2
- Trapping: 1
- Failed dog rescue: 1
- Running from the law: 1
Note: Activities like snowmobiling may also have involved fishing or trapping. See the accounts for details.
One shift is the increase in 50+ age victims. Baby boom demographics are a likely factor but this big a change suggests there significantly more older people out on the ice than there used to be. As we get older, taking more precautions is a good idea, especially if you are not as fit as you once were.
About half the accidents involved people on foot and half involved vehicles from 500 lb snowmobiles to a 5000 lb tractor.
In general, these findings are not new. The Lifesaving Society wrote ICE The Winter Killer in 1998 (revised 2005) about Canadian ice accidents. They mention almost all the problems cited above (as does the long established Minnesota DNR Ice Safety website.)
Brief Descriptions of Each Incident
Each incident is described by date in four additional pages (links below). There is some commentary on contributing factors and measures that can be taken if faced with a similar situation in the future. There is a link (red letters) to a news article or video about each incident at the beginning of a description. In a few cases there are additional links to other news articles and to related pages on Lakeice.org and other sites.