'The best thing is to distribute your weight:' What to do if you fall through ice

Two fishermen who fell through the ice Tuesday on Antioch Lake knew what to do after pulling themselves out of the water. Would you?

Experts caution never to be fooled by weak or thin ice, and not just as temperatures rise. Still, two or three times every season, Antioch Fire Department surface rescue personnel wearing exposure suits respond to local calls after someone falls through.

Antioch also automatically responds to reports of people “in the water” in neighboring jurisdictions, including Lake Villa, Fox Lake and Round Lake.

“It's not so much the warm air melting the ice,” said Deputy Chief Jim Cook. “It's the water. When the ice forms, it's always melting from underneath.”

Ice conditions can change quickly.

Cook said the men who fell through the ice Tuesday were heading out to fish about 500 or more feet from shore.

“They were out the day before and had no problems,” according to Cook. “As soon as they got to the middle, one guy fell through.”

The second man also fell in, but they were able to help each other out of the water and onto the ice, Cook said. Despite wearing special coats and pants that would have acted as flotation devices, the men didn't take any chances.

“They laid flat and called for help,” said Cook, adding that “the best thing is to distribute your weight.”

Rescue crews couldn't reach them on foot due to weak ice conditions, and an air boat ultimately was used to retrieve the men.

Cook said it's hard to breathe after you fall through ice. He advised to take 30 seconds or more to calm down and catch your breath, then aim toward shore, kick and basically swim onto more solid ice.

Once there, stay flat on your stomach and crawl to shore, Cook said.

“If you can't crawl, then roll. You have to distribute your weight,” he said.

Clear-blue lake ice is the strongest, while river ice and cloudy ice support less weight, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

According to the University of Illinois Extension, ice across a pond is seldom uniform. Water movement and snow cover can cause big differences in ice strength within a short distance.

Any moving water, such as a current or runoff, keeps ice from getting as thick. And because shallow water absorbs heat, the shallow end of a lake or other body of water won't have as much ice.

“A minimum of 4 inches of clear, newly formed ice is needed to support a person on foot,” according to Curt Sinclair, an extension specialist for environmental education.

Ice formed in the past few days usually is stronger than old ice that may have thawed and refroze over several weeks or appears cloudy, he added.

Cook said 4-inch-thick ice generally is OK for ice fishing or skating, but 6 inches or more is need for snowmobiles or ATVs.

“The only safe ice is the ice you're not going out on,” he said. “Know the area, talk with bait shops and fishermen.”

He said to watch for cracking or moving ice and evaluate as you go.

In an ice safety video, Sinclair said to pay attention to details. Tie a rope to something on the bank to take with you.

Other tips from Sinclair:

• Fashion ice picks from small pieces of wood attached with string or rope so they hang over your shoulders. Drive a nail in each end and cut the flat part off with a hacksaw to use as grips to pull yourself out of the water.

• Have an emergency plan and let people know where you're going.

• Go with a friend.

• Wear a personal flotation device in winter wear.

If going out at night, take a portable air horn or whistle and a flashlight to shine at the shore, Cook said.

And if your pet falls through ice?

“The best bet is to contact the fire department and let us take that risk,” he said. “We have the equipment and expertise.”

Firefighters with the Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Fire Protection District participate in an ice rescue demonstration. Daily Herald file photo
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.