If you crossed the St. Joseph River in South Bend Saturday, you might have noticed it looked a bit different. By the morning, portions of the 210 mile long waterway froze thanks to the bitter temperatures. Although it's a neat sight, the frozen river has raised concerns about ice safety.
Emergency workers say the fool proof way to keep safe is to stay away from the shoreline. With air temps near zero and the water at freezing, hypothermia can take over within minutes, leaving rescue workers with little time to do any rescuing.
"The ice can be six inches in one area and then you move three feet and you're paper thin,” Mike Gerndt, Battalion Chief for Clay Fire Territory, said.
Also thin, the window of survival for people that fall through the ice. So Clay Fire Territory uses a zodiac boat for moving water rescues. The vessel is stocked with rescue equipment for all types of water emergencies.
"This is a flotation device we can throw toward people in the water. The water activates a fusible link which causes this device to inflate,” Gerndt said.
But boats are no match for ice, so the department uses a floatable sled to reach people stranded on frozen water.
"It’s one of those things you hope you never have to use. I suppose when the time comes and you need it, it's not a luxury, but a necessity,” Gerndt added.
As of Saturday night, ice along the St. Joseph River shoreline in South Bend was about half an inch thick, but by the simple crack of a hand, it proved not nearly thick enough to walk on.
It also wasn't thick enough last March when two fishermen fell through ice at Potato Creek State Park. Thirty minutes passed before they were rescued, luckily both survived.
But only five days into the New Year, five-year-old Gabriel Mahler of Dowagiac fell into ice on Big Twin Lake. He never saw his sixth birthday.
"It’s really heart-wrenching,” one neighbor told NewsCenter 16 after the drowning.
"I’m very sorry for the family. As a mom and a grandmother yes, very much so, it’s terrible,” a woman said as she drove by the scene.
Firefighters say it may be tempting, but the intrigue to walk on water is never worth the harsh reality when you fall right through.
"It’s just a bad situation all around,” Gerndt concluded.
Regardless of how long the bitter temps keep up, firefighters say the St. Joseph River will never be safe to cross. Simply put, the river’s current constantly eats away at ice being formed in water that’s too deep to ever maintain a solid freeze.