February 8, 2009

"The day began with fishermen setting down pallets across a crack in the ice"

Sports reporter columnist D'Arcy Eagen published a warning note in yesterday's Cleveland Plain Dealer. With ice the thickest in years -- two feet in some places -- on Lake Erie, fishermen have been herding out onto the ice.

The Ottawa County sheriff issued a cautionary note in that same column, warning that with the temperatures rising and wind out of the southeast, cracks in the ice were likely -- meaning ice floes could carry people away. Emergency personnel were standing by, just in case.

That was yesterday's Plain Dealer. In an AP story by John Seewer in today's Courier-Journal, we have the follow-up story.

This gem of a sentence ought to be the first line of a short story rather than a line in a news report:

"The day began with fishermen setting down wooden pallets to create a bridge over a crack in the ice so they could roam further out on the lake."

The bridge worked well enough for 135 people to cross it.Then the wind picked up, the ice shifted, the pallets fell into the lake, and 135 people found themselves afloat on a miles-wide floe.

The Coast Guard sent four helicopters and eight air boats. Local authorities sent air boats, too. And some people on all-terrain vehicles found a crossing point five miles distant. One person died after he fell into the lake, apparently from a heart attack. The shock of the cold water will do that.

Bob Bratton, the Ottawa County sheriff quoted in the original Plain Dealer piece, is quoted again in this morning's paper. In what must be called an understatement, he said, "What happened here today was just idiotic. I don't know how else to put it."

When I was growing up, my parents owned an ice guide business on Middle Bass. I remember Daddy reporting one day that some shanties had just floated away. (I think they were Sonny Schneider's shanties, and I think they were in the cove between Middle Bass and Sugar.) The four or five fishermen were gotten off safely, but one of them was irate. Why? Because nobody would return to the treacherous ice to retrieve his watch, which he'd left there on a hook.

"My father left it to me when he died," said the man. "It's priceless."

Priceless? Hmmm. I suppose that depends on how you weigh human life vs. possessions. Sonny's life was far more valuable than a ticking trinket,as are the lives of all those rescuers endangered by yesterday's fiasco.

My father's comment years ago on the watch incident offers a classic lesson: "If you've got something that's priceless, don't hang it on a hook in a shanty."

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