How to stay safe while playing in the snow

  • Holes in a snow bank show where rescuers searched for a child who died after a snow fort collapsed on her at Rothem Church in Arlington Heights.

      Holes in a snow bank show where rescuers searched for a child who died after a snow fort collapsed on her at Rothem Church in Arlington Heights. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Daily Herald report
Updated 1/21/2019 6:33 PM

A 12-year-old's death when a snow bank collapsed in Arlington Heights Sunday raises questions about what is and is not safe for kids playing in the snow.

Esther Jung died after she and a 9-year-old friend went to play outside Rothem Church, 106 E. College Drive, police said. Authorities said she died as a result of asphyxia and hypothermia. The girls apparently built a fort in the snow bank and were playing when the roof fell in.

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Experts say such tragedies are rare, especially compared to injuries or deaths from sledding, skiing and snowmobiling, but they suggest precautions to avoid being trapped under snow.

"This is the first time I've heard of this happening. We have never responded to anything like that here as far as I know," said Darrin Johnson, a 20-year firefighting veteran and technical rescue team leader at the Naperville Fire Department. Trained to recover people trapped in enclosed spaces, technical rescue squads most commonly are called to trench collapses at construction sites, he said.

Johnson said anyone trapped by snow or any other debris should try to make a space around his or her face in order to breathe. If entering a snow tunnel or hand-dug cave, crawl face down, because if there's a collapse, you'll have a better chance at bracing yourself against the weight of the snow and keeping an air space clear.

Other suggestions include:

• Anyone building a snow fort should always have a partner or close adult supervision. Only one person should be in the fort at a time, leaving someone who could quickly summon help.


• Don't have a roof on your snow fort. Most injuries involving snow forts are caused by collapsed roofs.

• Don't tunnel into an existing snow pile, and especially don't dig straight in, which leaves too much weight overhead.

• Avoid building or playing in snow forts near roads, water and fences. Those hazards add to the danger, and because big snow piles usually are along roads or in parking lots, the chances of being hit by a car or a snowplow add to the risk.

• Keep entrances to snow forts short. Long tunnels can collapse, leaving no room to breathe.

• If walls or any part of the structure start to fail, leave immediately and don't go back inside.

Illinois Department of Public Health officials say they don't believe statistics exist on injuries or deaths from collapsing snow.

Johnson added that training for technical rescue team members does not specifically address snow cave-ins.

"It's hundreds of hours of training to get certified, and the fact that there's no time devoted in the curriculum specifically to snow collapse should tell you how few instances there must have been, though the principles of dealing with the collapse would be the same," he said.

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